How do you protect yourself against a pandemic virus? The current debate about the efficacy of wearing face masks in public as protection against Covid-19 echoes the difference of opinion during the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic a century ago. And while we all now pay attention to handwashing and social distancing, in 1918 people followed government advice to breathe deeply in public inhalation chambers filled with a zinc sulphate mist or where a machine sprayed it directly into their mouth. Responsibility for their own health meant they also shared their own preventive measures for warding off influenza.
To mask or not to mask? According to the 1919 commission of inquiry which considered the best ways to deal with any future pandemic, there was complete agreement that doctors, nurses and other attendants in close contact with influenza patients should wear masks. This was probably prompted by the shock that in less than eight weeks, three quarters of hospital nurses had contracted the disease from pandemic patients. The question was whether citizens should wear masks in public.