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[whitespace] Marion Donovan
Christine Donovan

Bum Deal: The invention of the disposable diaper freed moms from hours of drudgery.

Marion Donovan
Inventor
1917-1998

IT'S ONE OF LIFE'S little mysteries that inventions like the Salk vaccine or Eli Whitney's cotton gin get all the attention in history books, while the important ones--say, java jackets and retractable lipstick--don't even rate a footnote in those weighty tomes. Try to remember the last time you needed to separate cotton bolls from their seeds, then compare that to the last time your life was made just an eensy bit better because of the folks who invented Velcro, zippers or Post-its.

In the category of unsung heroes, let us not forget a woman destined to become the patron saint of mommies everywhere--dampless-diaper inventor Marion Donovan. Donovan, who died last November at 81, created the "Boater," which would prove to be the forerunner of disposable diapers. Although Donovan will probably never become a household name, she was a true visionary. While mothers everywhere were looking at poopy diapers and asking themselves, "Why?" Donovan looked at the nearest trash can and wondered, "Why not?"

Although the disposable diaper would not be perfected and mass marketed for another decade, Donovan paved the way that fateful day when she decided she had changed her daughter Sharon's last wet diaper. And wet clothes. And wet bedding. Which she had just changed an hour before.

Fortunately, Donovan was not trained in physics. She might have given up had she understood the terrifying complexity of covering a baby's bottom. The material must wick, not sponge. Dampness must be contained, but not enclosed; otherwise diaper rash runs amok. Then there is the acrobatic agility required to one-handedly negotiate huge safety pins harrowingly close to the nether regions of your beloved offspring.

After slicing up numerous shower curtains for prototypes, Donovan finally settled on parachute material for her boaters, so named because they kept the babies afloat.

"It was designed to push [the fluid and excrement] away from the body, rather than squish it on," explains Christine Donovan, the inventor's daughter.

Absorbing as this challenge was, Donovan had another sharp idea--replacing the safety pins with plastic snaps. Her enthusiasm still not dampened, Donovan took her next brainstorm--a disposable paper diaper--to the leading paper companies, but those plans lay in a soggy heap for another decade until a grandfather named Victor Mills perfected the now-famous Pampers.

The invention bug did not begin--or end--with Boaters. In all, a dozen brainstorms ranging from Dentaloop (dental floss circles) to Zippity-Do (an elastic pull for zipping up the back of a dress by pulling down in the front) were patented by Donovan.

Donovan reinvented not only the household world around her but her own life as well. She worked as a beauty editor for magazines in New York, including Vogue. Then, at age 41, she got an architecture degree from Yale and designed her own house.

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. He has fond memories of his mother and thinks he knows the secrets of her success.

"She looked at problems or tasks that had to be done in a traditional way, and said, 'This could be better,' " explains the good doctor.

He also believes that his mother left an important message for women.

"You have to have your dreams, and the truth is, there were a lot of failures in her life," Dr. Donovan says. "But it's about the persistence and stamina to get up again and not accept defeat as the end of the line, but as a new challenge and a new opportunity."
--Kelly Luker

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From the March 10-17, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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