The Crazy Amount of Tampons That Have Been Patented by Men

April 8th 2016

Lucy Tiven

Conventional wisdom might suggest that menstrual products were created by those who used them — women. But when New York Times reporter Pagan Kennedy looked into 200 patents for menstrual products dating back to 1976, she found that three out of four inventors who patented them were male. "Clearly men have exerted an enormous amount of control over the look and feel of menstrual products," Kennedy observed.

Over the course of her life, the average American woman uses over 16,000 tampons, according to the National Center for Health research. But where do they come from?

A brief history of tampons.

The precursors to today's tampons date back to the ancient world. In Egypt, women made disposable tampons out of papyrus, according to Tampax; Roman women, however, reportedly used wool; Japanese tampons were made of paper; Indonesian ones were comprised of vegetable fibers; and rolls of grass were the menstrual norm in Equatorial Africa.

Today's "string and wad" tampons are descendants of those documented in 18th and 19th century Europe, the Atlantic reported. In 1879, the British Medical Journal published a report on “Dr. Aveling’s Vaginal Tampon-Tube." The Atlantic described it's design:

"The “kite-tail” tampon that went inside the applicator was made “by tying three or four pledges of cotton-wool in a row with a piece of fine string or stout thread,” which were then saturated with glycerine (!) and smushed into the beveled end of the speculum, using the wooden rod."

After the tampon was inserted, the tube and rod were withdrawn.

In 1929, Dr. Earle Cleveland Haas, a physician, began to experiment with disposable menstrual products using compressed cotton inspired by ancient menstrual products and DIY tampons mentioned by women he knew. After fine-tuning his tampon, Haas earned a patent in 1933 under the name Tampax.

Tampons of today.

Fast-forwarding to the modern era, James M. Conner*, Daniel K. Harden*, and Donald M. Genaro* patented a lighter tampon secured by a sheath and ring in 1987. Taking a more creative approach, Steven A. Kilgore* developed a vibrating tampon to ease menstrual cramps and patented it in 1998. "As far as I could find, there’s no evidence to support the claim that vaginal vibrations alleviate cramps," Rose Eveleth wrote on The Last Word On Nothing.


In 2012, Kevin B. Larkin* patented "cell phone based tampon monitoring system" that alerted women about the state of their cycles and menstrual products currently in use. "By utilizing conventional cell phones, women may simply and privately monitor their currently inserted tampon and get timely forecasts and alerts," the patent asserts.

Notice a pattern? Presumably, none of the dude inventors who came up with these wacky tampons have endured a visit from Aunt Flo.

Female inventors often struggle to get patents.

While gender gap on tampon patents may seem particularly ripe with absurdity, it is indicative of a larger disparity in the sciences. The New York Times reported:

"According to a 2012 study, more than 92 percent of patent holders are men. And a 2006 study found that female academics in the life sciences — Ms. Tariyal’s field — were filing about 60 percent fewer patents than their male colleagues."

A 2010 study, reported by New York Magazine's "The Cut," found that male-helmed companies "received 98 percent of all investments."

Harvard engineer Ridhi Tariyal encountered the gender gap facing inventors in women’s-health technology firsthand while attempting to get funding for a tampon that would sample blood and diagnose cancer cells, STIs, and endometriosis with her business partner Stephen Gire. According to the New York Times, some prospective funders wanted them to use the technology for men instead, to measure testosterone or allow men to catch partners with venereal diseases(!) — "because women lie."

    “Someone told us that the product would only help women, and women are only half the population — so what was the point?” Tariyal told Times.

    *All of these people are men.