In 1987, an American pharmaceutical executive called Mary Ann Leeper flew to Copenhagen to get a firsthand look at what she thought might be the world’s next great health innovation. She didn’t expect to find it tucked away inside an old cigar box.
When she arrived at the old farmhouse owned by Danish doctor and inventor Lasse Hessel, he opened the door with a cigar in his mouth. Then he fetched the box. “Inside were all these bits and pieces — metal, plastic, all different kinds of stuff,” Leeper recalls. “I took a deep breath and thought, ‘Holy mother — what have I gotten myself into?’” Somehow, these bits and pieces fit together to form a contraption that women could wear during sex to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections — the world’s first female condom.
The presentation may have been unconventional, but Leeper and her colleagues at Wisconsin Pharmacal had high hopes for Hesse’s invention. “The AIDS crisis in the United States was just fully being recognized, and it was clear to us that for women to have a product that they could use to help protect themselves would be a good thing,” Leeper says.
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