How One Woman Inspired The Design For The N95 Mask NPR's history podcast Throughline tells us the story behind the N95 mask.

How One Woman Inspired The Design For The N95 Mask

How One Woman Inspired The Design For The N95 Mask

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NPR's history podcast Throughline tells us the story behind the N95 mask.


In 1958, a woman stood in a roomful of men. Sara Little Turnbull made a presentation to those men at the giant company 3M. She called her presentation Why. It included an idea that would become the prototype for the N95 mask, the mask that is now vital in the fight against COVID-19. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei of NPR's history podcast Throughline have her story.


RUND ABDELFATAH: Curiosity defined Sara Little Turnbull's life.


SARA LITTLE TURNBULL: (Laughter) I want to know everything. I want to know why this and why that and what's in that drawer and what's behind that door and things like that.

PAULA REES: She said she was somewhere between being a peeping Tom and the neighborhood gossip.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: This is Paula Rees. She's an urban space designer.

ABDELFATAH: Paula was part of a group of friends who took care of Sara in the last years of her life. They called themselves The Little League. The recordings you're hearing of Sara are from an interview Paula did with her before she passed away in 2015.


TURNBULL: I didn't have any money and very often had a choice of either buying a pencil or an eraser or being able to have some lunch or have something to drink with my lunch.

ABDELFATAH: Sara grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1920s, the roaring '20s to some. But for Sara and her family, it was a struggle.


TURNBULL: It was curiosity shaped by survival.

REES: She was an extremely bright and very precocious child, and she always led with an amazing sense of humor. And she was always having this big, gigantic smile and a great laugh. And she probably was never bashful about being who she was from a very early age.

ABDELFATAH: As a teenager, Sara's love for art and nature and the simple things morphed into an interest in design. So she decided to apply to one of the best design schools in the country, the Parsons School of Design.

REES: After that, she was hired as the decor editor of House Beautiful.

ABDELFATAH: The popular interior decorating magazine. And all the while, she lived in a 400-square-foot hotel room in midtown Manhattan.

REES: And this was sort of her living experiment. And she's very clever with her design ideas and had super organized storage so that you go into the space and everything was contained in the cabinetry. And then it would unveil.

ABDELFATAH: Sort of like the Marie Kondo before Marie Kondo.

REES: Yeah (laughter) yeah.

ARABLOUEI: In 1958, Sara decided to start her own company.


TURNBULL: 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.

ARABLOUEI: Looking around at all the big corporations and manufacturers of 1950s America...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, whistling) Hey, hey, Susie Q, what's cooking with you? Your teeth look white...

ARABLOUEI: ...Sara was struck by something.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Say, this looks like fun - an afternoon at the amusement park and a very pretty girl.

ARABLOUEI: They seem to be designing and marketing their products without accounting for the most important part of the equation - housewives.

REES: She wrote an article called "Forgetting The Little Woman," and what she did is she sort of called out America's major manufacturers by saying, why do you create products for the buyers? Why aren't you considering the real needs of the end user? Which at the time was the housewife.

ABDELFATAH: This was a bold move, but some companies took notice of her approach and really liked it. Among them...

REES: 3M - they're very curious about who she is and what she's doing. And so they decide to hire her. And they put her into the gift wrap ribbons and tape division, which seems like a pretty obvious placement for a woman at the time.

ABDELFATAH: Around this time, manufacturers like 3M were experimenting with a new kind of moldable material that could retain all kinds of shapes. Sara saw a lot of potential in this new material, which led to her iconic presentation with that unforgettable title...

REES: Why?

ABDELFATAH: ...And her many ideas...

REES: A hundred ideas.

ABDELFATAH: At the end of which, 3M chose a molded bra cup.

REES: And at the very same time, she was taking care of three of her immediate family members that were all in the process of dying from different ailments. And so she spent a considerable amount of time in the medical situation with, you know, doctors and nurses and watching them fiddling around with these flat masks that they had to tie on. And she just was thinking, oh, man, I wonder if there isn't some way we could do a better mask.

ABDELFATAH: That's when it hit her. Maybe, just maybe, that molded bra cup design could be turned into a mask. So she went back to the 3M execs and told them, let's think bigger. Let's make a real difference. Let's design better medical masks.

ARABLOUEI: 3M moved fast, and by 1961, they patented their first lightweight medical mask based on Sara's design. It had the same shape as the bra cup, was molded and disposable and it had an elastic band instead of ties that went around your ears and a nose clip. Sara's vision had come to life. The only problem was it didn't really work. Pathogens were still getting past the nonwoven material.

REES: So the first mask may have been seen as a failure, but I know Sara - she always said that 90% of her career was made up of failure. And she didn't see that as something that was defeating for anybody who was looking to innovate or to create new horizons.

ABDELFATAH: Sara went on to design all sorts of other products, not just for 3M but also for major companies like Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Ford, even NASA.


TURNBULL: I have a favorite quotation.

REES: If you don't stretch...


TURNBULL: If you don't stretch...

REES: ...You don't know where the edge is.


TURNBULL: ...You won't know where the edge is. I was constantly stretching into areas that I didn't know very much about.

ABDELFATAH: And her mask design didn't go to waste. Ultimately, it inspired the design used to create the respirator we now know as the N95.

INSKEEP: Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei with reporting from the NPR history podcast Throughline.

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