Safe, simple, reliable: the hidden history of tampons

In August 1941, College co-founder and then President William Fletcher Shaw was contacted by the British Medical Association for advice on the safety of Tampax brand tampons. The British Medical Journal had included an advertisement for the brand in their July issue. The full page advert reassured readers that its products were ‘entirely safe, simple and reliable’, especially for women working for the war effort.

Tampons use in the UK had increased during the war. This was thought to be partly down to their popularity among American and Canadian service women who had been deployed to serve in Britain. Another potential cause was the lack of gauze for producing larger sanitary towels. This had left many shops stocking tampons exclusively, instead of a full range of menstrual products.

Tampax 1
The British Medical Journal’s letter to RCOG President William Fletcher Shaw asking his opinion on their tampax advert in light of College Fellow Lawton Moss’ objections. (RCOG Archive)

But RCOG Fellow Edward Lawton Moss had disagreed with this advertisement and its promises. He had written to the BMJ to describe the dangers of tampon use and the associated risks of septic infection. So strong was his medical opinion that he threatened to cancel his subscription to the journal.

Tampax 2
A copy of Edward Lawton Moss’ letter to the British Medical Journal in 1941 protesting against their advertising of tampons (RCOG Archive).

Lawton Moss wasn’t the last person speak up on the tampon issue. Our archives show that various women’s societies, the Ministry of Health, and even the Archbishop of Westminster weighed in!

The RCOG carried out a survey in 1942, receiving data from 227 medical professionals on their opinions on the safety of tampons.

The results were mixed, with many doctors considering tampons dangerous to young and unmarried women. The RCOG took a similar stance and encouraged brands like Tampax to include a more safety warnings in their future advertisements.

A seemingly benign but ultimately controversial advertisement for tampons published in The British Medical Journal in 1941
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