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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — October 2022: Mary Kenner

Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was born on May 17, 1912, in Monroe, North Carolina. Her father Sidney Nathaniel Davidson and her maternal grandfather Robert Phromeberger were both inventors. This familial interest in inventing inspired Kenner from a very young age. At just 6 years old, she attempted inventing a self-oiling hinge for doors. She then went on to create other inventions throughout her childhood such as a portable ashtray and an absorbent umbrella that could soak up rain water.

Kenner graduated from Dunbar High School in 1931 and was admitted to Howard University. She attended college for a year and a half, but dropped out due to gender discrimination and financial difficulties. In 1950, she became a professional florist and ran her chain of flower shops into the 1970s while inventing things in her spare time.

In her lifetime, Kenner created many inventions and secured several patents. Many of her inventions were developed out of necessity. During her era, menstruation was not a commonly discussed topic and was considered taboo. Kenner realized that despite society’s general neglect of the issue, there was a wide-spread need for a hygienic tool that would allow women to minimize disruption to their daily routines when they were on their menstrual cycles.

She originally invented the sanitary belt in the 1920s, but she couldn’t afford a patent at the time. She improved her primary version over time and continually updated the invention. The Sonn-Nap-Pack Company heard of her invention in 1957 and was interested in mass producing her product, however when they learned that she was African-American, they were no longer interested.

Kenner described the situation in an interview saying, “One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant … I saw houses, cars and everything about to come my way. . . . Sorry to say, when they found out I was Black, their interest dropped.” Notwithstanding this initial rejection, an undeterred Kenner persevered, securing the patent for her sanitary belt in 1957, and going on to invent many other inventions.

In 1976 Kenner patented an attachment for a walker that included a hard-surfaced tray and a soft pocket for carrying items. Kenner also invented a toilet paper holder that she patented. Her final patent, granted on September 29, 1987, was for a mounted back washer and massager. Kenner never received any awards or formal recognition for her work. However, her inventions and contributions helped pave the way for subsequent innovations. Kenner still holds the record for the greatest number of patents awarded to a Black woman by the U.S. government.

As the developer of the precursor to the modern self-adhesive Maxi pad, Kenner transformed the entire world of female sanitary care. Her other inventions have since evolved throughout the years with similar versions still remaining in use.


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