Editor’s Note: Taiwanese American Peter Tsai has been in the news a lot lately as “the man behind the mask.”
“The retired inventor of N95 masks is back at work to fight Covid-19,” reads a Washington Post headline; “scientist-inventor a humble national hero,” another news agency chirps. But the depth and vibrance of Tsai’s living legacy is best known by his two daughters, who have not only borne witness to the N95 mask’s far-reaching impact during a global pandemic, but to its long development process as well, conducted in tandem with Tsai’s extraordinary devotion to his family. We’re honored to share this special perspective on an international hero, “the dad behind the mask.”
As told by his daughters, Kathy Tsai and Connie Tsai on September 14, 2020
Our father, Peter Tsai, came to the United States over 35 years ago in the 1980s with dreams, ambition, and determination to build a better life for himself through further education and learning.
As his children growing up in the ‘90s and through high school in the ‘00s, the two of us spent most evenings and weekends with our dad completing our homework in his empty after-hours conference rooms at the research center on the University of Tennessee campus. He, of course, was closed off in his lab doing electrostatic charging and further research on fiber material while we continued our studies, unknowing of the spectacular innovations he would soon achieve. It felt like a typical Taiwanese American lifestyle to us: our dad worked, raised his kids, started a backyard garden full of fruit trees, devotedly cooked and provided meals for us, and – whenever we could spare him – flew around the world on business trips. We always thought of him as this superhuman being, even more so as we became adults who could fully appreciate the scale of his achievements beyond gracious fatherhood. He worked seven days a week, commuting to his office daily, while still making time for group tennis in the Taiwanese community (同鄉會) and taking us to school to learn Mandarin on Sundays (he even held a principal position at one point for this small teaching group). While we dozed in the backseat during those car rides home every weekend night, our dad made the trips on no caffeine, and still had the energy to tend to our garden when we finally made it home. His unflinching work ethic, humility, and devotion as a father would have already made him an honorable, decent man. But our dad, Peter Tsai, would go on to achieve over 20 commercial license agreements and twelve US patents in his career, most notably creating the N95 respirator technology that has since saved over a billion lives.
“His unflinching work ethic, humility, and devotion as a father would have already made him an honorable, decent man. But our dad, Peter Tsai, would go on to achieve over 20 commercial license agreements and twelve US patents in his career, most notably creating the N95 respirator technology that has since saved over a billion lives.”
Peter Tsai (蔡秉燚) grew up on the Tsai family farm in Chingshui, Taiwan during Taiwan’s pre-economic boom. As one of ten children in a low-income household, he learned the value of hard work early on: he walked miles to school carrying a backpack of school books, and, in an early demonstration of his engineering instincts, would even figure out how to make his own roller skates from old door rollers, since his family didn’t have enough money for toys or recreational activities. After graduating from Taichung Municipal Chingshui Senior High School and completing two years of military service duties, he went to National Taipei Institute of Technology in hopes of learning skills for his lifelong career path. Following graduation from technical college, our dad went to work at China Textile Testing and Research Center (now Taiwan Textile Institute) and then a dyeing and finishing company, which helped earn him NT$6,000/month, an estimated $150 USD/month at the time.
It wasn’t an uncomfortable life, but he still felt that he was missing the theoretical aspects behind his working knowledge. He decided that a graduate program in the United States would fulfill his desire to understand his work in a more meaningful way (investigating the “why,” rather than operating the “how” and “what”), but with his limited discretionary income and the high cost of a one-way plane ticket to the United States, it would take another four years of working for him to finally pursue this dream.
At the time, Taiwan’s economy was going through rapid economic expansion, so Taiwanese industries bought machinery as well as the technology for material processing from Europe, the United States, and Japan. Dad believed that if he did not come to the US, he would need to seek employment in China or Southeast Asia because Taiwanese textile industries were moving there. Several of his college classmates had drawn similar conclusions; ultimately, our dad became one of many Taiwanese professionals of his generation who immigrated to the United States in search of greater work opportunities.
Dad has always instilled in us a strong work ethic, and through the stories he’s shared with us at dinnertime, we fully understand why. When he first arrived in America for his graduate studies, he not only spent late night hours studying various engineering subjects and theories, but he also fit in long hours working at a fish-n-chips restaurant to help make ends meet. As he has always taught us, “it’s not only about the quality of the work you do, but how you make a difference for the people you work with and the final result of your accomplishments.” He had ambitious plans and was fortunate to receive full graduate assistantships to pay for the entirety of his studies. His assistantship opportunities allowed him to study many courses from different disciplines, which were a solid foundation for his future research after graduation.
As he has always taught us, “it’s not only about the quality of the work you do, but how you make a difference for the people you work with and the final result of your accomplishments.”
Kathy and Connie Tsai visited the then Taiwanese-owned (under new ownership now) fish-n-chips restaurant in Long Beach, CA during a summer 2012 vacation, where their dad Peter Tsai worked in the summers after arriving in the US in the early 1980s.
While finishing postgraduate work at Kansas State University and eventually completing over 500 credits in a variety of subjects, including mathematics, physics, and chemistry, dad married mom and shortly after, their first-born daughter Kathy arrived. After completing his master’s degree in Kansas, dad followed his research supervisor to the University of Tennessee to begin his PhD coursework and eventually build and lead a research team that developed the technology of electrostatically charging fibers. This was the beginning of the next 35 years of his life devoted to researching fibrous materials, but dad would have yet another achievement in parallel: the birth of his second daughter, Connie, in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Times were hectic, with dad being in a PhD program himself and mom completing her master’s degree in nursing while working, and both of them living in a small apartment near campus. Add the responsibility of young children and things became particularly troublesome, like on days when Kathy was found drawing on the back of dad’s research papers and especially in dad’s memories of picking us both up from daycare without a car in the rain, carrying a kid in each arm and an umbrella under his chin. They made the difficult decision to have us live instead with our grandparents in Taiwan (Kathy for a year and a half, and Connie for another year afterwards, until our parents could afford plane tickets for us to return to the United States).
Eventually, Dad got enough funding to work at TANDEC (Textiles and Non-Wovens Development Center at UTK) from the beginning to the end– and even after the end. He was always working, relentless in his research. Even the coronal charging technology he developed nearly 30 years ago in 1992 to make the materials for air filters, including the N95, is still and has become more valuable during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Peter Tsai at the University of Tennessee Research Foundation 2019 Innovation Awards Ceremony, where he was selected for the Innovator Hall of Fame Award.
He became widely respected partly because of the technology he developed, but largely and most recently because he came out of retirement to help find a way to sterilize N95 respirators and to increase the production of N95 media. As his daughters who’d spent so many late nights, weekends, and holidays with him in his research lab growing up, we were not surprised that he would come out of retirement to help amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic. We always thought about what a burden it must have been to have young kids around when he always had important work to do, but he reassured us that he had fun taking weekend lunch breaks with us, and enjoyed taking us to tennis with him.
We could always count on him to show up when it mattered most. When he found mom unconscious at home due to diabetic ketoacidosis and she was placed on life support in critical care in 2018, he stayed at her side in the hospital for 3 months, from the first visitation time to the last. He never showed much emotion or openly told us much about his childhood or family stories, but his life has been a testament to the virtues of hard work, discipline, and always trying to do the right thing. His work was never about maximizing profits or becoming famous; it was always about helping others.
To this day, he remains our ever-humble and down-to-earth Taiwanese American dad: gardening, cooking, running errands, joking with friends on the phone, while still sharing his knowledge via web conferences and interviews, and coordinating and delivering N95 respirators to medical communities.
Then and now: Connie and Kathy Tsai with Peter Tsai (left to right) grilling at a ‘90s barbeque for a Taiwanese community picnic in Knoxville, TN.
And in 2013- Connie pictured in the foreground with Peter chatting with Taiwanese community friends at the annual mid-autumn festival gathering.
Dr. Peter Tsai, in front of his home of the past 20 years in Knoxville, TN holding one of the UT orange and branded N95 masks that will be donated for exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, TN amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
These masks were also provided for all guests and vendors in attendance at Connie and husband Eric’s small and socially-distanced 2020 wedding.