The daughter of an inventor, Marion O’Brien Donovan was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 15, 1917. Her mother died when Marion was only seven, so spent most of her after-school time at South Bend Lathe Works, the factory owned and operated by her Irish-born father, Miles, and his twin brother, John. One of the O’Brien brothers’ major inventions was an industrial lathe that was used to grind both automobile gears and gun barrels. Following the invention of the lathe, the brothers released a book, ''How to Operate a Lathe,'' in 1930. The book sold 1.5 million copies in 78 countries. The combined sales of the lathe and book made the brothers a fortune.
John encouraged his daughter’s curiosity, and when she wanted to create a new form of tooth powder while in elementary school, he helped show her what she needed to do to develop her product. In the process she caught his can-do spirit of problem solving.
After high school, Marion moved east to attend Rosemont College, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She received her Bachelor’s degree in English Literature in 1939 and accepted a job as the assistant beauty editor for Vogue Magazine in New York.
Following World War II, Marion met and married leather importer James Donovan. She soon resigned from her job and the couple moved to Westport, Connecticut where they started a family. Now a young mother in the post-war baby boom, Marion struggled with the same frustrations as other women with young babies; her daughter Christine’s exasperating habit of almost always wetting her diapers as soon as they were changed, soiling the bed sheets in the process. There had to be a better way to handle the situation.
During this time in history, women inventors often faced a certain level of stereotyping from the media. On one occasion, an article was published on the topic of “housewives that strike it rich.” In it, the article’s writer stated, “Marion Donovan…knows nothing about science…she is baffled by any mechanism more intricate than an egg beater.” One can only wonder if these same words were attributed to such women as Madam Curie and Grace Hopper.
In 1946, the inventor gene in Marion’s DNA proved to the skeptics she truly did know something about science, at least the science of baby care, when she designed a waterproof diaper cover. Experimenting with an old shower curtain and her sewing machine, Marion designed a reusable and leak-proof diaper cover. She named her creation the "Boater," because “at the time I thought it looked like a boat.” Continuing to test her idea with different materials, Marion’s final prototype was made of nylon parachute cloth and featured metal and plastic snaps to replace diaper pins. An additional plus was the fact that unlike the rubber baby pants of that time period, Boaters did not cause diaper rash.
Once Marion had finished tweaking her “Boater” design, it was time to put it on the market. After approaching a number of manufactures, all of which turned her down, she struck out on her own. In 1949, the Boater became the latest item available in the infant department at Saks Fifth Avenue. Its popularity was such, store managers could not keep the shelves stocked. In 1949, Donovan received a letter from Adam Gimble, then president of Saks Fifth Avenue. Gimble said, “It is not often that a new innovation in the Infants’ Wear field goes over with the immediate success of your Boaters.” Donovan was granted four patents for her Boater in 1951 and soon sold her company and patents to Keko Corporation for $1,000,000 ($8,851,376.29 – 2012). Years later, Donovan stated, “We couldn’t say it, but it did cure diaper rash, and many doctors recommended it.” (One can only wonder what the “egg beater skeptics” now thought of Donovan’s capabilities.)
Following her success with Boaters, Marion’s creative mind was back at work. Seeking to lighten a new mother’s laundry load, Donovan set out to create a disposable diaper. For this, she would need a special type of paper; one that was not only absorbent, but could also wick away moisture from the skin in an effort to prevent diaper rash. After a great deal of experimentation, Donovan finally developed a composition that did the job well.
Striking in her appearance, many had likened Marion Donovan to Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell. Consequently, Marion’s effort to contact the top executives of leading paper companies was relatively easy. With her prototype in hand, she began to approach the country’s large manufacturers. As with the Boater, however, rejection met her at the door. She toured all the major US paper companies, and was roundly laughed at as various individuals peppered their statements with words like “impractical” and “superfluous”, telling her there was no market for such a product.
Marion’s innovative heritage, however, would not allow her to just chunk everything and call it quits with respect to inventing. Though she now laid aside her ideas regarding diaper improvements, she went on to collect 20 patents between 1951 and 1996 for solutions to various problems around the home. Numbered among her inventions were: the “Big Hangup”, a closet organizer that handled 30 garments, a soap dish which drained into the sink and “Zippity Do,” an elastic cord a woman could connect over her shoulder to the zipper of her dress, eliminating the contortionism she previously encountered in the process of getting dressed.
In 1975, Marion Donovan was interviewed by Barbara Walters. During the interview, Marion said she came up with most of the innovations by asking herself, “What do I think will help a lot of people and most certainly will help me?” Then when her inventions were ready for market, “I went to all the big names that you can think of, and they said ‘We don’t want it. No woman has asked us for that. They’re very happy and they buy all our baby pants.’ So, I went into manufacturing myself.”
Included on her innovative list were: dental floss, hosiery clamps, boxes for facial tissues and a variety of woman-related essentials. In 1985, she invented DentaLoop, a two-ply dental floss that eliminated the need to wrap the dental floss around one's finger for use. A constant innovator, prior to the arrival of cup holders in cars, Donovan used a gimbaled glass ring from a boat supply store to keep her coffee from spilling as she traveled from place to place.
Returning to college, Marion was one of only three women in her graduating class when she received her Master's degree in architecture from Yale University in 1958. In 1980, she designed her own house in Greenwich, Connecticut. During an interview in 1994, Marion said “I always wanted to be an architect. I’m fascinated by structure.”
In 1995, Marion’s second husband, John F. Butler, had a stroke. Prior to that, daughter Christine, who worked in sales and research for DentaLoop said, “We were doing very well, but when Butler had a stroke, all came to an end in 1998 after he died. Mother was physically and spiritually exhausted. She died four months later.” Marion O’Brien Donovan Butler was 81 when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital in the Manhattan section of New York City on November 4, 1998.
One of a small number of women inventors who became commercially successful in her day, Marion’s efforts are well documented in a collection of papers at the National Museum of American History Archives Center, having been acquired through the Lemelson Center’s Modern Inventors Documentation Program.
As with many other outstanding minds, Marion was originally mocked for her most significant invention, and remained relatively unknown to the general public throughout her life. Her ingenuity, however, has definitely earned the undying gratitude of new parents around the globe as she helped to revolutionize infant care. Ten years after her invention was scoffed at by various manufacturers, Victor Mills revisited Marion’s idea and created Pampers®.