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Get Stuck on Band-Aid History

Small injuries are a commonplace problem, but before the Band-Aid, protecting papercuts and other such wounds was a huge hassle

A mid-century Band-Aid tin. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Johnson & Johnson employee Earle Dickson was a friend to the accident-prone–especially at home.

The inventor of the Band-Aid, who was born on this day in 1892, originally came up with the idea to help his wife, Josephine Knight Dickson. It made his career.

According to the account traditionally given of this story, Josephine Knight Dixon was sort of accident-prone, or at least unfamiliar with her new kitchen. She kept getting small cuts and burns on her hands–and the options available to her for treating these wounds weren’t great, writes Margaret Gurowitz, Johnson & Johnson’s chief historian. Put yourself in her shoes, Gurowitz writes:

She can leave the cut unbandaged, which slows healing and risks infection; she can struggle one-handed to try to tie a strip of gauze around her finger; she can go to the rag bag and tear off a strip of fabric and try to tie that around her finger; or she can try to put together a bulky makeshift bandage.  The problem?  These options are very hard to do by yourself, and they don’t stay on to protect the cut while it heals.

At the time, Johnson & Johnson made both surgical adhesive tape and gauze intended for covering cuts–Dickson’s innovation was to put those two things together. Josephine Dixon also gets credit for working on the idea with him.

“The adhesive bandage was invented because Dickson sought a better, more practical solution to an everyday problem,” writes the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The inventor was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017–he passed away in 1961 after a long career with Johnson & Johnson.

To fix his wife’s problem, he decided to try sticking small bits of sterile gauze directly on the center of pre-cut strips of surgical tape, writes the Lemelson-MIT Program. “Dickson folded the gauze into a narrow pad, unrolled the tape, laid the gauze over it, and put down a band of crinoline to keep the tape from sticking to itself. He then rerolled the tape so that his wife could unwind and scissor off what she needed.”

Drawings from the original Band-Aid patent show that the modern product hasn't changed all that much. (U.S. Pat. No. 1612267)

Dickson brought his innovation to Johnson & Johnson, and they saw potential in the fact the bandage could be easily applied without the help of a second person. “Unfortunately, the original handmade bandages did not sell well; only $3,000 worth of the product was sold during their first year. This may have been because the first versions of the bandages came in sections that were 2 1/2 inches wide and 18 inches long,” writes Lemelson-MIT.

According to Mary Bellis writing for Thought Co., the Band-Aid took a while to get going–further refinements to the original invention produced a consumer-friendly product, but sales were slow until Johnson & Johnson incorporated Band-Aids into their Boy Scout first aid kits in the 1920s. This was the beginning of marketing to children and families that helped familiarize the public with the Johnson & Johnson name and their new product.

The Band-Aid that Dickson received a patent for in 1926 looks essentially the same as Band-Aids today: a thin strip of adhesive and gauze covered by a protective layer that you remove to apply it. His good idea has been making life easier for more than 90 years.

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