Marion Donovan

Marion O’Brien Donovan (Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History © Smithsonian Institution)

Inventor of Disposable Diapers

Marion Donovan is known for inventing the disposable diaper, but Victor Mills took her idea and founded Pampers.

Since her mother died when Marion was seven, she grew up spending lots of time in the factory her father and uncle owned. The twin brothers were inventors and are best known for the South Bend lathe, which was used for grinding automobile gears and gun barrels. Although Marion was fascinated with what they did, she attended Rosemont College near Philadelphia and majored in English literature. Upon graduation she took a job as assistant beauty editor at Vogue magazine in New York. She married John Donovan, a leather importer, in 1942, resigned her position and started a family.

The couple moved to Westport, Connecticut, and when Marion had her first child, she was frustrated having wet diapers saturate sheets, blankets and clothing. She worked to solve the problem by cutting up a shower curtain and designing a reusable, leakproof diaper cover that didn’t leave a rash like rubber pants did. She replaced the pins with snaps and called her design the “Boater” because it looked like a boat.

Manufacturers said it wasn’t needed, so Marion manufactured it herself. She debuted her creation at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949. She then worked with different kinds of paper, but again, no manufacturers were interested. It wasn’t until 1961 that Mills created Pampers.

Donovan patented 20 inventions over her lifetime including:

  • 30-garment compact hanger
  • a  soap dish that drained into the sink
  • an elastic cord that connected over the should to the zipper of a dress
  • the Dentaloop, a floss circle that could seesaw between teeth.

Born in 1917 in Fort Wayne, Indiana
1939 – earned a bachelor’s degree from Rosemont College near Philadelphia
1942 – married James Donovan, a leather importer
1958 – earned a degree in architecture from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
2015 – inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame

1946 – designed a waterproof diaper cover
1949 – The “boater” debuted at Saks Fifth Avenue
1951 – received a patent for the “boater”; sold the rights to Keko Corporation, which manufactured children’s clothing
1951 – worked on creating a disposable paper diaper
1961 – Victor Mills took Donovan’s idea and created Pampers
1980 – designed her own home

Donovan died in 1998 at the age of 81.

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Honoring 23 Black Women, Recognizing 23 Notable Mothers, Saluting 23 Faithful Suffragists  

Article By: Jo Ann Mathews

I published three ebooks in 2020: Women and Adversity, Honoring 23 Black Women; Women and Adversity, Recognizing 23 Notable Mothers; and Women and Adversity, Saluting 23 Faithful Suffragists to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. These books are meant to be study guides for all students from grade school through college to help in choosing topics for assignments and to learn more about these noteworthy women. Go to, and to learn more.

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