Through his ingenuity, Victor Mills, '26, touched the lives--or at least the behinds--of just about every American born in the past generation.
Why? Simple: He invited Pampers disposable diapers.
And he did much more than that. If you've ever eaten a Duncan Hines cake, Jif peanut butter, Pringles potato chips or used Ivory soap, then you owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mills, who was a UW chemical engineering student back in the days when it was a two-person department.
Mills, who on March 28 celebrated his 100th birthday at his home in Tucson, Ariz., helped build Procter & Gamble into a manufacturing giant by developing processes to make these and other consumer staples.
He was in the right place at the right time. His adviser for his senior thesis was Waldo Semon, a UW alumnus and instructor who went on to invent polyvinyl chloride or "vinyl," the second most used plastic in the world, as well as bubble gum. Semon, incidentally, will celebrate his 100th birthday in 1998.
At first, Mills wanted to go into civil engineering. His dream was to build bridges. But after serving in the Navy during World War I, he was encouraged to consider the new field of chemical engineering. He enrolled at the UW to take it up and to be near his fiancée, who was a Bellingham school teacher.
Mills, who joined Procter & Gamble shortly after graduation, developed a continuous process for making Ivory soap that cut production time from seven days to just a few hours. He also helped develop synthetic rubber for tires for World War II. He was put in charge of the company's exploratory development division, which turned out a wide range of new products as well as improvements to existing ones.
Some of his biggest hits: he improved Duncan Hines cake mixes by passing ingredients through large milling drums designed to polish aluminum foil. Within three years, Duncan Hines mixes, which had been poor sellers, were the best-selling brand in the nation.
He also developed a process for preventing the oil from separating in Jif peanut butter. But his most significant achievement was the invention of disposable diapers.
That occurred after Procter & Gamble asked him and his team of engineers in 1956 what could be done with a paper pulp plant it had just acquired.
A grandfather at the time, Mills knew one thing--he hated changing diapers. So he put his mind to the challenge. It occurred to him that the pulp mill produced clean, absorbent paper that just might work for a disposable diaper. From that hunch, Pampers were born. Mills had just launched the $3 billion-a-year disposable diaper industry.
"The essence of engineering is to make a product people want for a price they can afford to pay," says Bruce Finlayson, chairman of the UW chemical engineering department. "Victor Mills is the quintessential engineer."--Jon Marmor
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