Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2017
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A solution that sticks

Who knew that a clumsy cook from the 1920s was the inspiration behind the Band-Aid?

Once in a while, a groundbreaking innovation comes along that changes medicine forever. Indeed, a little elbow grease and the ingenuity of great thinkers have combined to make many of our confounding medical matters history.

Where would we be, for example, without René Laënnec and his stethoscopes, Joseph Lister and his antiseptic compounds, and Wilhelm Röntgen and his X-rays? Although the issues surrounding heart murmurs, wound infections and broken bones would have been solved eventually, it was the pioneering spirit of these inventors that brought solutions in a timely fashion.

And yet, it wasn’t until the 20th century that one of the most ubiquitous medical conditions of all time was finally resolved. When Earle Dickson invented the Band-Aid, it was as close to a cure for the common boo-boo that ever was (or likely ever will be) discovered...


 

Accidental discovery

Earle Dickson was born in Grandview, Tennessee in 1892. In 1921, he was a young, newly-married fellow working for Johnson & Johnson at its corporate headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey. By that time, Johnson & Johnson was already an innovator and leader in medical and surgical supplies, having been founded by the Johnson Brothers in 1885. Dickson was employed as a cotton buyer, and all was well and good, except for one thing: his wife Josephine was simply a mess in the kitchen.

No record exists as to just how catastrophic her casseroles actually were, but one thing was certain: the process of preparing them was brutal. Poor Josephine often burned and cut herself while making dinner and endlessly endured the makeshift gauze and tape bandages her husband applied to her fingers. Their unwieldy nature compromised her intact digits, causing Josephine to fumble even further with the kitchen knives that got her into trouble in the first place. Add to this a simple hand washing, and the entire mess of gauze and tape would slip off. Poor Earl would have to start taping her up all over again.

One night Dickson had an epiphany — a peanut-butter-and-chocolate moment that would change the face of wound care forever. What if, he wondered, there was a way to blend the gauze and tape into a single sensational strip? Surely that would solve all of Josephine’s problems in the kitchen and maybe even earn him the approval of his superiors at Johnson & Johnson.

He quickly set to work. By placing a small piece of gauze on top of a strip of tape, and covering the surrounding sticky parts with a crinoline that could both ensure sterility and simply be pulled off before use in order to safeguard stickiness, he found his solution and immediately began testing the prototypes on his hapless sweetheart. Josephine was delighted. Not only could she apply Earle’s bandage herself, without assistance, but she found it offered excellent mobility and staying power.


 

Free publicity

After being encouraged by a co-worker, Dickson presented his project to his boss at work. Though not quite sure at first, James Johnson recognized the bandage’s widespread appeal once Dickson demonstrated how easy it was for him to stick the bandage onto his skin by himself. Johnson & Johnson immediately began to produce and sell what they called the Band-Aid. Sales were slow; not much more than about $3000 dollars’ worth during that first year.

At first, Band-Aids were made by hand — a painstaking process that needed to be addressed before mass production, and lower prices, could begin. Also, the version initially put to market was much larger than it is today: each Band-Aid measured about 45-centimetres long by six-centimetres wide, dimensions that required resizing for smaller burns and cuts. Johnson & Johnson believed in the product and, in 1924, developed a machine that produced Band-Aids. They also cut them down to a smaller size.

It helped, but the public had still not warmed to the bandages in any big way. Finally, corporate bigwigs developed a way to spread the word in a famous publicity stunt. Who, they asked themselves, was the likeliest target for Earle Dickson’s Band-Aids? After much thought, they concluded that nobody hurt themselves more than young boys. After offering Boy Scout troops far and wide free Band-Aids, grateful mothers across the country were alerted to the wonders of the sticky strip. At a time before freebies and publicity stunts were the common marketing strategies they have become today, Johnson & Johnson’s Boy Scout program was a publicity ploy almost as ingenious as the product itself.


 

A cut above the rest

The product took off, and the rest, as they say, is history. There have been many milestones in the product’s history: millions of the strips were shipped by Johnson & Johnson to soldiers fighting in World War II. In 1951, the first kid-friendly designs were featured on the back of the tape, offering, for perhaps the first time ever, serious competition to a mother’s kiss as a way to mend a skinned knee. In 1958, vinyl tape was introduced as an alternative to the fabric version, offering waterproof protection for the first time.

The public seems quite happy with the invention so far. Since Johnson & Johnson began producing the product in 1921, over 100 billion Band-Aids have been churned out! And what about the young innovator who created the Band-Aid? Dickson was rewarded with a plum vice-presidency at the company, a position that he held until he retired in 1957. By the time Dickson died in 1961, Johnson & Johnson was raking in more than $30 million in sales annually — all thanks to one woman’s woeful incompetence in the kitchen and her loving husband’s desire to make things all better.

Although the term Band-Aid has grown to mean a temporary fix or an ill-thought-out answer, nothing could be further from the truth in terms of solving the original dilemma it was intended to address. From scraped knees to gaping wounds, Earle Dickson’s Band-Aids will likely be helping boo-boos heal well into the next millennium.

Some would even go so far as to say that the Band-Aid is a work of art. Indeed, one of Earle Dickson’s precious plasters, and its iconic packaging, is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, earning the Band-Aid a place among some of the most beautiful things in the world.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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