Ruth Benerito, pioneering chemist who helped invent wrinkle-free cotton, dies at 97
In an era of male-dominated science, this unknown American hero led the development of one of the most significant technological innovations of the 20th century.
Tue, Oct 08, 2013 at 12:22 PM
The washer and dryer, the microwave oven, the dishwasher … so many innovations have been introduced to help alleviate the drudgery of running a household. But of all the inventions sparked by the desire for convenience, none revolutionized the life of a housewife quite like wrinkle-free cotton.
In our world of computerized bread makers and robot vacuums, it’s hard to imagine what a profound impact the invention of permanent-press cotton had on women of a different era. But when Dr. Ruth Benerito led a team that made “easy care” clothing a reality, she happened upon what would later be considered one of the most significant technological developments of the 20th century. For her part in the invention, Benerito was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008.
Benerito died on Saturday at her home in Metairie, La. She was 97.
Born Ruth Mary Rogan in New Orleans on Jan. 12, 1916, Benerito entered H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College at the age of 15, and then attended the women’s college of Tulane University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, followed by a master’s in chemistry from Tulane and a Ph.D. in the field from the University of Chicago.
In 1953, she began working for the United States Department of Agriculture in New Orleans, where she continued to work until her retirement in 1986. She first worked in the center’s intravenous fat program, according to The New York Times, where she helped invent a fat emulsion for wounded soldiers in the Korean War. Five years later she became the leader of the cotton chemical reactions laboratory.
It was here that she built upon previous efforts to create wrinkle-free cotton, borne by a desire to keep cotton competitive in the face of new synthetic materials. Although many have credited Benerito as the sole inventor of wrinkle-free cotton, it was a distinction she repeatedly denied.
“I don’t like it to be said that I invented wash-wear, because there were any number of people working on it, and there are various processes by which you give cotton those properties,” she said. “No one person discovered it or was responsible for it. But I contributed to new processes of doing it.”
That said, she played a crucial role in its development and eventually held more than 50 other patents, many of them in cotton chemistry.
After retiring from the USDA, Benerito joined the faculty of the University of New Orleans, where she taught until she was 81. Her husband of 20 years, Frank Benerito, died in 1970.
She leaves no family members, but her legacy lives on each time we take an article of clothing out of the dryer and put it on, no ironing required.
In 2002, Benerito was honored with the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award. You can see her describing her work in the video below, made to commemorate the award:
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