Genesis of the N95
In 2015, when Sara Little Turnbull was asked to reflect on how she approached design, she commented, “If I sit down to analyze a project, I start looking at the material as though I had never seen it before. It’s a willingness to face one’s own naivete.”5
In the 1950s, Ms. Turnbull was known for her ideas. She started her career as an interior designer for a magazine, showing people how to maximize the limited space that city living provided. This eventually morphed into a career focused on the needs of women. She pointed out the irony of an entire manufacturing industry run by men who never bothered to solicit the opinions of the women who would be using their products.6
This surprisingly novel concept brought her to the attention of 3M, which hired her—for the gift wrap division. They recognized her talents, but had no idea how to nurture them.
Fortunately, she didn’t require nurturing. On her own, she learned about a new material that 3M was developing—a polymer extruded from nozzles to create a non-woven material that could take on any shape. She created a presentation in which she outlined the amazing potential of this material to create any of a number of products. From this list, the executives chose one.
3M asked her to develop a bra cup.7
Just as her previous bosses saw a brilliant woman and immediately associated her with gift wrapping, her current bosses seemed confused by her talents and, again, tried to put her in a position they felt was appropriate for a woman.
Meanwhile, she was helping care for relatives with chronic illnesses and noticed how much time physicians spent fiddling with ill-fitting masks. She convinced her bosses that designing a better mask would be a more appropriate use of her time and talents.
In 1961, 3M patented the first lightweight medical mask, based on Sara Turnbull’s design. Instead of ties, it had elastic bands that fit around the ears, and a nose clip to keep the mask secure.8
It was a dismal failure.
The problem was the material—it was too porous to protect against pathogens. It was not until 1995 that Professor Peter Tsai of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, figured out how to create an electrocharged material that would trap 95% of all particles. The initial intent was to use the material for air filters, but in 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) realized the material could also block tuberculosis and viruses. When 3M wanted to create its N95 mask with this new material, the company used Sara Turnbull’s mask design to do it.9