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
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

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue