100 Years of Respiratory Protection History

100 Years of Respiratory Protection logo

In 1919, the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM) initiated the first respirator certification program. Several months later, on January 15, 1920, this federal body certified the first respirator. To recognize the important milestones of the past 100 years, this webpage documents a general historical overview of respiratory protection research and the evolution of the certification program as undertaken by the U.S. federal government.

Respiratory Protection History Prior to the 1800s

Respiratory protection traces back as far as Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

Pliny the Elder, photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Around the world, scientific minds recognized the need for respiratory protection long before the U.S. Bureau of Mines. The history of respiratory protection traces back as far as Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), a Roman philosopher and naturalist, who made use of loose animal bladder skins to filter dust from being inhaled while crushing cinnabar, which is a toxic, mercuric sulfide mineral used at the time for pigmentation in decorations. Many centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) recommended the use of wet cloths over the mouth and nose as a form of protection against inhaling harmful agents (Spelce et al., “History,” 2018; Cohen and Birkner, 2012).

Further scientific inquiry and discovery led to the use of early atmosphere-supplying respirators. While ancient divers used hoses and tubes for supplied air, seventeenth century scientists added bellows to these devices as a way of providing positive pressure breathing. Although science has Pliny the Elder, photo courtesy of Shutterstock made advancements over time, the need for proper respiratory protection became increasingly apparent. In the 1700s, Bernadino Ramazzini, known as the father of occupational medicine, described the inadequacy of respiratory protection against the hazards of arsenic, gypsum, lime, tobacco, and silica (Spelce et al., “History,” 2018; Cohen and Birkner, 2012).

While these scientific discoveries and advancements to respiratory protection were pivotal, the most important date for respiratory protection was still to come.

One hundred years have passed since the first approved respirator. NPPTL continues to provide respiratory protection research to best serve the workers and public that relies on them.

Page last reviewed: July 31, 2019