Marion Donovan Marion Donovan

Fascinating facts about Marion Donovan inventor of Disposable Diapers in 1946.

Like many famous inventors, Marion Donovan (1917-1998) was originally mocked for her most significant invention; but she helped revolutionize the infant care industry by inventing the prototype of the disposable diaper.

Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1917, Marion O'Brien grew up surrounded by machinery and invention. Her father and uncle invented the "South Bend lathe," used for grinding automobile gears; after her mother died when she was seven, Marion spent most of her free time in their factory.

O'Brien moved East to attend Rosemont College in the suburbs of Philadelphia. After graduating in 1939 with a BA in English Literature, she took a job as Assistant Beauty Editor at Vogue magazine in New York. Soon she married James Donovan, a leather importer, resigned from her position, started a family, and moved to Westport, Connecticut.

Motherhood gave Donovan good reason to revive the innovative instincts of her own childhood. Like all mothers, Donovan struggled with her babies' exasperating habit of nearly instantaneously wetting her diapers as soon as they were changed --- which at that time meant soiled sheets as well. Donovan's first breakthrough, in 1946, was to design a waterproof diaper cover. Steadily working her way through a series of shower curtains, Donovan designed and perfected, on her sewing machine, a reusable, leakproof diaper cover that did not, like the rubber baby pants of the time, create diaper rash. Donovan called her diaper the "Boater," because it helped babies "stay afloat." The final product was actually made of nylon parachute cloth, and featured an additional innovation: Donovan had replaced safety pins with metal and plastic snaps.

The diaper covers' debut came at New York's Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949, where they were, unsurprisingly, an instant success. Donovan's patent was granted in 1951. By that time, Donovan had begun an even more essential innovation: the disposable paper diaper. This was not as easy to create as it may sound, since in order to prevent a rash, a diaper's material must "wick" the moisture away from the baby's skin, rather than absorbing the moisture and retaining it inertly. After much experimentation, Donovan designed a composition of sturdy, absorbent paper that did the job well.

Surprisingly, Donovan did not have instant success with this idea. She toured the major US paper companies, and was roundly laughed at for proposing such an unnecessary and impractical item. It took nearly ten years for someone to capitalize on Donovan's idea: namely, Victor Mills, creator of PampersŪ.

Meanwhile, Donovan had returned to school: she earned a degree in Architecture at Yale University in 1958. She eventually designed her own house in Greenwich, Connecticut (1980); but by that time she had invented numerous practical solutions to problems around the home. For example, Donovan invented a 30-garment compact hanger (the "Big Hangup"); a soap dish that drained into the sink; and the "Zippity-Do," an elastic cord that connected over the shoulder to the zipper on the back of a dress, eliminating the contortionism previously required to put on most women's dress clothes.

Donovan earned over a dozen patents in all. For many years, she also worked as a product development consultant. When she died last year, she finally received some of the attention she deserves --- although some reports paid as much attention to the fact that Donovan's son James grew up to be a urologist as they did to the mother's career as an inventor. Marion Donovan is still not a household name; but new parents everywhere have a great deal to thank her for.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
Women Inventors, A Class Act  from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:

Leaking Laffs Between Pampers and Depends
by Barbara Johnson / Paperback - 176 pages (March 2000) / Word Books
Motherhood, she writes, "is like getting a life sentence in prison with no hope of parole," but children multiply the joy in life.
Diapers, Pacifiers, and Other Holy Things
by Lorraine M. Pintus / Paperback (February 1996) / Chariot Victor Pub

Each of the thirty one short chapters will tickle your funny bone or touch your heart, challenge your thinking, and inspire within you the need to walk more closely with your God.
Too Big for Diapers: Featuring Jim Henson's Sesame Street Muppets
by John E. Barrett (Photo.), Random House (Editor) / Hardcover: 12 pages / Random House;(2000)
Baby Ernie is too big for diapers! He's ready to try out his brand-new potty. It may take a few tries, but soon Ernie learns he can use the potty all by himself!

Feminine Ingenuity: Women and Invention in America
by Anne L. MacDonald / Paperback - 540 pages (March 1994) / Ballantine Books
Chronicles women's patented inventions, beginning with the first patent obtained by a woman (in 1809). Discusses some of the economic, political, and social obstacles, and sets the women and their inventions in historical context.


ON THE WEB:
Invention Dimension - Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Featured Marion Donovan for her invention of the Disposable Diaper.
(URL: web.mit.edu/invent/iow/donovan.html)
Marion Donovan Biography
Twentieth-century inventor, Marion O'Brien Donovan (1917-1998), made a career of designing solutions to everyday, domestic problems.
(URL: americanhistory.si.edu/archives/d8721.htm)
Pampers History
From the Procter & Gamble site.
(URL: www.pampers.com)
Pin-Free Diapers
In 1949, Stanley Mason had his first major breakthrough: changing his baby boy's diapers inspired him to invent, the world's first disposable, pin-free diapers that were contoured to fit a baby's bottom.
(URL: web.mit.edu/invent/iow/mason.html)
Female Frontiers
Female Frontiers is a Sharing NASA project. These online resources are provided by NASA's Quest team located at the NASA Ames Research Center. The Quest Project, NASA's K-12 Internet Initiative, is supported by the NASA Learning Technologies Project (formerly IITA) of NASA's Office of High Performance Computing and Communications.
(URL: www.quest.arc.nasa.gov/space/frontiers/activities/womanswork/chart.html)
'Mother' of disposable diapers born, raised in South Bend
Marion Donovan died Nov. 4, 1998 in New York at the age of 81.

(URL: www.southbendtribune.com/98/nov/112298/business/132582.htm)
The Nappy (Diaper) Information Service
Provides accurate information about disposable nappies to help parents of young babies make an informed choice as to the best type of nappy for their child.
(URL: www.nappyinformationservice.co.uk/)
It Wouldn't Have Happened Without Her
(Page removed from site.)
(URL: www.lifetimetv.com/exclusives/20th_century/frameset.shtml/mariondonovan.html)


FUN FACTS:

  • Jamie Lee Curtis, actress, patented a diaper that has a pocket to hold moistened towelettes.
  • Although psychoanalysts might have a field day with the fact that the dampless diaper inventor's son grew up to become a urologist, James Donovan, M.D., merely laughs.
  • In the early 1950s Donovan sold her diaper invention for about $1 million "in order to devote more time to developing other inventions.