Donovan was born in 1917 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her father, also an inventor, developed and ran the South Bend Lathe Works manufacturing plant along with her uncle in South Bend, Indiana. Her father and uncle had invented an industrial lathe that was used to grind both "automobile gears and gun barrels." After World War II, unhappy with the thankless and repetitive task of changing her daughter's cloth diapers, along with the mess the soiled diaper made to the surrounding bedsheets and her daughter's clothing, she came up with a possible solution. With the use of a sewing machine and a shower curtain, she succeeded in developing what is considered the first waterproof diaper cover. Not only did this new diaper keep the bed and clothing from becoming wet or soiled, but it also did not cause chafing or diaper rash.
Donovan received a B.A. in English from Rosemont College in Pennsylvania in 1939. In 1958, she earned a Master's degree in architecture from Yale University, where she was one of only three women in her graduating class. She had once worked for both Harper's Bazaar and as an assistant beauty editor at Vogue magazine. Donovan was first married to James F. Donovan and later to John F. Butler and had two children. She died on November 4, 1998, at the age of 81 at Lenox Hill Hospital in the Manhattan section of New York City.
Donovan was granted four patents for her diaper cover, including the use of plastic snaps as opposed to safety pins. In 1949, she attempted to sell what she called the "boater" to a number of different manufacturers; the effort was, at first, largely unsuccessful. She later started selling the waterproof diaper at Saks Fifth Avenue. Two years later her company and patents were sold for $1,000,000 to the Keko Corporation.
Donovan was granted 20 patents from 1951 to 1996. These included woman-related essentials and other convenience items, such as a facial tissue box, storage container box, towel dispenser, hosiery clamp, envelope and writing sheet combination, closet organizer, and dental flossing products. In 1985, she invented the product DentaLoop, a two-ply dental floss that eliminated the need to wrap the dental floss around one's finger for use.
- Lauren Kata. "Technology, Invention, and Innovation collections". Americanhistory.si.edu. Retrieved 2010-02-24.
- "Marion Donovan: Inventor of Disposable Diapers". Women-inventors.com. Retrieved 2010-02-24.
- "Lemelson Center: Article: First Papers of a Woman Inventor Acquired by Archives Center". Invention.smithsonian.org. Retrieved 2010-02-24.
- Mcg, Robert (1998-11-18). "Marion Donovan, 81, Solver Of the Damp-Diaper Problem - Obituary; Biography". NYTimes.com. Retrieved 2010-02-24.