Obituary: Victor Mills

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Victor Mills, chemical engineer: born Milford, Nebraska 1897; twice married (one daughter); died Tucson, Arizona 1 November 1997.

Victor Mills led an engineering team that invented the first mass-market disposable nappy.

In his 35-year career with Procter & Gamble, Mills had a hand in developing products that ranged from Ivory soap to Pringles, the stacked crisps. He also helped refine the manufacture of synthetic rubber, but none of his products had a more dramatic impact than disposable nappies, which have come to symbolise the modern culture of convenience.

The first challenge to cloth nappies was imported from Sweden to the United States by Johnson & Johnson in the 1940s. But it was Pampers, devised by Mills's team and introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1961, that ended the dominance of the cloth variety.

Today, disposable nappies dominate the market, with the French, for example, using them in 98 out of every 100 nappy changes, while in the United States they are chosen about 95 per cent of the time. Though the throwaway nappy has been a target of environmental groups because of its stubborn refusal to degrade in landfills, other studies have shown they tend to improve health and cleanliness in children.

Mills was born in Milford, Nebraska, in 1897, and spent time in the US Navy during the First World War. He then worked as a welder in Hawaii before moving to Seattle, where he studied chemical engineering at the University of Washington.

In 1926, he was hired by the Cincinnati-based firm Procter & Gamble, as one of the company's first chemical engineers, where he developed a technique for speeding up lengthy chemical processes into continuous assembly- line productions. For instance, Ivory soap had traditionally been made batch by batch in individual soap kettles, but Mills found a way to create the product in a continual process that greatly cut the cost. He used his family as guinea-pigs, bringing home products like liquid toothpaste and cake mixes to test out on them.

During the Second World War, he overcame a problem plaguing efforts to create synthetic rubber, adding a special variant of Ivory soap flakes to the mix. In the 1950s, he turned his attention to nappies and tested them on his grandchildren. The first commercial version was test-marketed in Peoria, Illinois, in 1961, the year Vincent Mills retired. The product still required pins and consumers balked at the price of 10 cents a nappy, but design improvements and a sharp cut in price soon made the disposable nappy a mainstay of late-20th-century family life.