2002 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
|Photo by Mary Jackson
At a time when the cotton industry was struggling, one woman revolutionized
the textile industry forever with her invention of easy-care cotton.
Dr. Ruth Rogan Benerito was honored with the 2002 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime
Achievement Award for her patented processes in textiles, not to
mention her lifelong commitment to education.
In the post-WWII era, Americans were quickly adopting synthetics
in favor of cotton clothing, which rumpled easily. As Research Leader
for the Southern Regional Research Center of the U.S. Department
of Agriculture, Benerito salvaged the cotton industry by using mono-basic
acid chlorides instead of di-basic acid chlorides to crosslink cotton's
cellulose chains and produce a wrinkle-, stain- and flame-resistant
fabric. Her modernized process resulted in fabric with a better
shape and appearance, known as "wash and wear."
Benerito made many contributions to textiles throughout her 33-year
career, exemplified by her 55 patents. She created an environmentally
safe process to pre-treat cotton using radiofrequency cold plasma
in lieu of the hazardous sodium hydroxide. Also, her inventions
have been applied to the paper and wood industries and manufacturers
of detergents, films, chemicals and ceramics.
Benerito, who was born in 1916 and grew up in New Orleans, LA,
was privileged to receive an education during a time when most women
weren't afforded the opportunity. One of two women permitted to
enroll in chemistry classes, she received her B.S. at Tulane University's
Sophie Newcomb College (1935). She also attended Bryn Mawr College
in Pennsylvania as a graduate scholar (1935-36), and received her
M.S. in Physics from Tulane University (1938) and her Ph.D. in Physical
Chemistry from the University of Chicago (1948). She proved to many
that women were competent and intelligent in science, paving the
way for others to gain entry to the field.
In addition to her research and inventions, Benerito has a history of inspiring others through her teaching. As a high school teacher and college chemistry professor at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, Tulane University, and the University of New Orleans, she taught until age 81. Presently, she is Professor Emeritus at Tulane University Medical and Graduate Schools.
Benerito received the U.S.D.A.'s highest honorthe Distinguished Service Award (1970), and was the first female recipient of the Southern Chemist Award, in addition to being recognized by President Lyndon B. Johnson for her scientific and teaching achievements.