Scottish inventor of the disposable nappy dies at 94

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The Scot who transformed the lives of mothers around the world when she invented disposable nappies has died at the age of 94.

Valerie Hunter-Gordon died on Sunday at her home, Ballindoun House, in Beauly, Inverness-shire.

She came up with her idea for a labour-saving alternative to towelling nappies after having her third child in 1948. At the time towelling nappies, pinned together and held in place with a pair of rubber pants, were the only option for mothers and had to be washed after use.

“I just didn’t want to wash them,” Mrs Hunter-Gordon said in an interview last year. “You had to iron them as well. It was awful labour. I was amazed you couldn’t buy a disposable version. I went to the US and you couldn’t buy them there. It was extraordinary. No-one had thought about it.”

At the time Mrs Hunter-Gordon was living in Surrey with her husband Pat, a major in the Royal Engineers. Their third child, Nigel, had been born the year before.

Determined to escape the never ending cycle of the mangle and washing line she got out her Singer sewing machine and made a pair of prototype nappy pants from parachute nylon lined with cotton wool. They were not an immediate hit.

“They wouldn’t stay on and the cotton wool didn’t work,” she said.

Undeterred, and using Nigel as a model, Valerie, the grand-daughter of inventor and engineer, Sebastion de Ferranti – known as “Britain’s Edison” – soldiered on tweaking her new nappy to make it more fitted and absorbent. As she nappies improved the other Army mothers started putting in requests.

Mrs Hunter-Gordon ended up making 500 pairs of pants in her home selling them on for 5 shillings each.

Later a new material, PVC, allowed her to make a strong, waterproof product – adjustable waterproof pants, fastened with poppers, with a cord round the waste which could be wiped, washed and bleached with no ironing required. Eventually after more testing on Nigel the pants were made of cellulose wadding with a layer of cotton wool.

Although popular with other mothers, manufacturers and retailers were less enthusiastic.

The breakthrough came with a chance meeting between Valerie’s father, who was a director of Ferranti, and Sir Robert Robinson whose company Robinson of Chesterfield made sanitary towels.

Robinsons took on the manufacturing and Mrs Hunter-Gordon patented the product.

Nigel, resplendent in his Paddi, was the star of the advertising campaign.

Reminiscing last year, aged 67, he said: “Until I was 30, I used to see myself on the side of trucks as I went up and down the M6”.

In the 1960’s the product went into decline with the arrival of Pampers.

Mrs Hunter-Gordon’s husband Pat, CBE, FRSE, MC DL , a soldier and engineer and managing director of AI Welders, died in car accident in 1978. He is buried in Tomnahurich Cemetery, Inverness.

The funeral arrangements for Valerie Hunter-Gordon, mother, grandmother and great grandmother and inventor of the disposable nappy will be announced later this week.

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