Ruth Benerito: Chemist who helped create wrinkle-free cotton

 

Ruth Benerito was a US Agriculture Department chemist who played a leading role in the development of wrinkle-free cotton in the 1960s, an innovation that simplified housework for millions of homemakers and reinvigorated the American cotton industry.

For generations, “King Cotton” was a dominant crop of the American South, where Benerito was born and where she worked for most of her life. But it had one notable drawback. During laundering, the fabric wrinkled so severely that it could not be comfortably worn, slept on or displayed for polite company without ironing. Depending on a household’s size, weekly ironing could consume the better part of a day, or longer. In the 1930s and ’40s, newly developed synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester began to challenge cotton’s popularity. The man-made textiles had their imperfections, including what some consumers considered an uncomfortable texture, but could generally be drip-dried and worn without pressing.

Beginning in the late 1950s, Benerito led a team at the Agriculture Department’s Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans that would change the nature of mass-market cotton. She and her colleagues devised a chemical treatment that “cross-linked,” or reinforced, the bonds of cellulose molecules in cotton fibres, making the fabric less likely to wrinkle. “It’s sort of like when a woman gets her hair in a permanent wave,” Benerito said. “You have to take these long chains and cross-link them, connecting the two chains in a specific arrangement.”

In 1969 the team received a patent for a “method for producing resilient cotton fabrics through partial esterification.” Chemically treated cotton – billed over the years as “easy care,” “wash and wear,” “durable press” and “permanent press” – allowed the fabric to compete in the marketplace with synthetic textiles. Subsequent refinements allowed fabrics to hold permanent creases and to be stain- and flame-resistant.

In 2002, Benerito received the prestigious Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology lifetime achievement award. “It’s safe to say,” said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT programme, “that Ruth Benerito has made us all more comfortable in our clothes over the years.”

She was born Ruth Mary Rogan in New Orleans in 1916. Her father was a civil engineer, her mother an artist and feminist activist. Both encouraged her to pursue her interest in science, a field in which few women then worked. She graduated in chemistry in 1935 at the H Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, a women’s school at Tulane University, where she had enrolled at 15 and where she was one of two women admitted to chemistry classes. She received a master’s degree in physics from Tulane in 1938 and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1948.

Benerito worked for the Agriculture Department from 1953 until her retirement in 1986 and received in all 55 patents, including one for a fat emulsion for intravenous feeding that was used to treat wounded soldiers in the Korean War. After her initial work on easy-care cotton she was credited with helping improve the chemical treatment process to make it more environmentally friendly. “Nature made cotton pretty good to begin with,” she said.” “I just gave it a little boost.”

Besides her work at the Agriculture Department, Benerito taught at institutions including Tulane and the University of New Orleans. Her honours included the Agriculture Department’s distinguished service award. In 1971, Ladies’ Home Journal named her one of the most important women in the US. Although she was credited with improving the lives of women, who had long shouldered the burden of household ironing duties, Benerito said she had set out with a broader goal in mind. “I was just interested,” she said, “in the application of physical chemistry to solve practical problems.”

© The Washington Post

Ruth Mary Rogan, chemist: born New Orleans 12 January 1916; married 1950 Frank Benerito (deceased); died Metairie, Louisiana 5 October 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'