17 June 2011 by Justin Pollard
Earle Dickson had a head start in the bandaging game as he worked for Johnson and Johnson, the American medical company who had been early pioneers of sterile surgical dressings, following Robert Wood Johnson's conversion to the idea after hearing a speech by Joseph Lister. Dickson was not an engineer however, nor was he working in product development, indeed in 1920 he was just a humble cotton buyer at the companay's HQ in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Earle lived nearby in Highland Park with his bride of three years Josephine Frances Knight. It was a happy marriage, if a slightly bloody one. The problem was not however anything sinister, simply the fact that Josephine had come to married life without the sort of manual dexterity that makes tasks like cooking a happy experience. In fact Earle had noticed from early on that her hands were constantly covered in pieces of wadding and medical tape, covering up cuts and burns received in her daily battles with the dinner. Nor was dinner Josephine's only problem. Having been wounded the received practice was to wash it, cover it with a piece of gauze and cotton wadding (preferably purchased from Mssrs. Johnson and Johnson), and then bind the dressing on with tape. This was not an easy procedure to do at home on your own, with one hand, whilst bleeding. Furthermore, the bulky dressings made subsequent culinary upsets more likely and in washing those further burns and cuts, the old dressing would get soggy and the tape peel off.
So like any decent, concerned human, Earle began to experiment. What was needed was a way of easily dressing a wound using only one hand and in such as way that the dressing would remain in place and not precipitate further disasters. Having access to the raw materials at J&J he began to cut strips of medical tape and place down the middle a line of cotton gauze. To keep this clean and dust free until it was needed, he then covered the tape with crinoline. Whenever Josephine needed a dressing, which was often, she could now simply cut a piece of tape, peel off the backing and apply it to the wound. Still not the easiest task with one hand, but a great improvement.
Clearly the improvement in Josephine's quality of life was more generally noticeable too as Earle's friends at the office suggested he take his brilliant idea to his boss James Wood Johnson. Johnson liked the idea of a dressing you could apply yourself and agreed to put it into production. It would be nice to say that sales immediately took off, but sadly they didn't. In the first place the 'Band-Aid' plasters, as they were called, had to be made by hand, a slow and rather expensive job. Secondly they came in a roll three inches wide and eighteen inches long which proved a little cumbersome. Thirdly, no-one knew they existed.
The answer to the first two problems came in 1924 when the company introduced machinery to make the plasters and decide to reduce the dimensions to something which made them more appropriate for small scrapes rather than major amputations.
The third problem proved more tricky. Earle's target audience has been his wife and whilst undoubtedly anyone working in a kitchen would welcome the odd plaster, in truth most people were not as clumsy as Josephine. What was needed was an audience who regularly fell over, cut themselves, scraped their knees and generally returned home of an evening looking like they'd been dragged through a hedge backwards. In other words, small boys. Distributing plasters to the small boys of America would be no mean feat however. Fortunately there was an organization ready to take on just such a job. In a stroke of marketing genius, Johnson and Johnson send free packs of sticking plasters to the organizers of Boy Scout troops. Soon, boys across America were traipsing home from their meetings, neatly bandaged up with Band-Aids and able to tell their parents of both their daring exploits and the new cutting edge treatment for their cuts. This did the trick. By the time Earle Dickson died, in 1961, having risen to the heights of Vice-President of the company, they were making $30 million a year from his invention.
Posted By: Justin Pollard @ 17 June 2011 06:07 PM General
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