When you got dressed this morning, did you put on something cotton that you didn’t have to iron and it was still presentable? That modern convenience is thanks to chemistry and the work of Dr. Ruth Benerito.
With parents that were proponents of equal rights for women she was encouraged to pursue her passions, originally in mathematics but then the more hands-on field of chemistry. After being passed over for promotions in favor of male colleagues with less experience, she was frustrated and asked for a raise. Upon being rebuffed she decided it was time to quit her teaching position at Tulane in 1953. Hearing of her resignation, former students, knowing her abilities, encouraged their employer to hire the chemist. Thus she began a thirty year career at the Southern Regional Research Center of the United States Department of Agriculture beginning in 1953.
Not long after the lab was called upon to help save the failing cotton industry. With the advent of synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon the once strong industry was at the brink of collapse. Building on the work of others before her and with a team of scientists, Benerito took on the problem of how easily cotton fabric wrinkled. Due to the weak hydrogen bonds in the cellulose fibers, wrinkles find their way into clothing made of the material and they have to be removed with heat. Others had developed means for changing the bonds in the fabric but it was made stiff and uncomfortable. Using an additive to the process Benerito’s team created links in the cellulose that made it smooth-wrinkle-free cotton was born and an industry saved.
She was awarded a patent for the technology, the first of a total of 55 patents most dealing with improvements in fabric treatments. She also holds a unique patent for an intravenous fat emulsion used for IV feeding of severely wounded soldiers during the Korean conflict. She retired from the USDA lab in 1986 and then taught at the University of New Orleans until 1981. She was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1981.
Written by Angela Goad