LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM PRESENTS LIFETIME
ACHIEVEMENT AWARD TO INVENTOR OF EASY CARE COTTON
Ruth Rogan Benerito Pioneered Processes
for 'Wash and Wear' Clothing, Inspired Students
San Francisco, CA, April 23, 2002 The woman who helped
revolutionize the textile industry through the introduction of easy–care
cotton the precursor to "wash and wear" clothing
was today named winner of the eighth annual Lemelson–MIT
Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation. Dr. Ruth
Rogan Benerito is being recognized for vital contributions that
helped transform the textile, wood and paper industries.
SAVING THE COTTON INDUSTRY
Following World War II, when synthetic fabrics were gaining notoriety
and preference among Americans, Benerito helped the struggling cotton
industry regain favor by modernizing its manufacturing processes.
While working as a Research Leader for the Southern Regional Research
Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she developed the
theory of crosslinking cellulose chains in cotton to make the fabric
wrinkle-, stain- and flame-resistant. The resulting fabric maintained
its shape and appearance better than previous cotton threads, resulting
in what is commonly referred to as "wash and wear." Her
ingenuity led to the first of 55 U.S. patented processes, which
eventually spread throughout the cotton industry.
During her 33-year career with the Research Center, Benerito worked
tirelessly to resolve numerous problems in the cotton industry.
She revolutionized the pretreatment of cotton by creating an environmentally
safe procedure. The process involves replacing the standard mercerization
of cotton — treatment of cotton with sodium hydroxide —
with radiofrequency cold plasma cleaning thereby eliminating serious
environmental hazards. This development was later adopted by Japan's
Benerito has been recognized countless times and has earned several
awards, including the U.S.D.A.'s highest honor — its Distinguished
Service Award, the American Chemical Society's Garvan Award, the
Southwest Regional Award, the U.S. Civil Service Commission's Federal
Woman's Award and the Southern Chemist Award, of which she was the
first female recipient. She was also recognized by President Lyndon
B. Johnson for her scientific and teaching achievements.
"It's safe to say that Ruth Benerito has made us all more
comfortable in our clothes over the years," said Merton Flemings,
Director of the Lemelson–MIT Program. "In addition to
saving an industry and revolutionizing clothing manufacturing processes,
she has also shared her enthusiasm and joy of teaching with countless
students. For all her contributions to our society, she is truly
deserving of this Award."
TRUE CALLING IN EDUCATION
Although recognized by most as an inventor and researcher, Benerito
devoted much of her career to teaching others. She shared her knowledge
first as a social worker in New Orleans, then as a high school teacher
in mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry. In 1940, she left
for Virginia to teach chemistry at Randolph–Macon Woman's
College. Three years later, she returned to New Orleans as a chemistry
professor at Sophie Newcomb College, the women's college at Tulane
University and one of her alma maters. She later taught at Tulane
Medical School and Graduate School as well as the University of
Benerito asked all of her students to use education for personal
enrichment rather than as a means of making money. "I've always
believed in education for education's sake," she said. After
earning a Bachelor of Science degree at Sophie Newcomb College,
she continued her studies as a graduate scholar in chemistry at
Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and completed her Master's Degree
in Physics at Tulane University. In 1948, Benerito earned a Ph.D.
in Physical Chemistry at the University of Chicago.
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Benerito, a modest woman, was surprised by her selection. "I
am honored and humbled to accept the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement
Award," she said. "I am proud to be recognized among the
most inventive minds in our great country, knowing those who have
preceded me with this Award."
Benerito's father, a graduate of Tulane (1907) and a civil engineer,
insisted that she attend college, always preaching that an education
was the one thing his children could acquire and hold forever. Her
mother, unlike most women of the time, was a college graduate —
Sophie Newcomb class of 1910. She was a trained artist and active
feminist, and encouraged her daughter's love of science and education.
Today, at the age of 86, Benerito still lives in her native New
Orleans. She retired from the Southern Regional Research Center
in 1986, but continued sharing her experiences as a professor. Although
Louisiana's State University System has strict rules against faculty
teaching past the age of 70, an exception was made for Benerito
at the request of her students and peers. Benerito taught until
age 81 as a professor of chemistry at the University of New Orleans.
Currently, she is Professor Emeritus, at Tulane University Medical
School, Department of Biochemistry, and Tulane University Graduate
Other recipients of the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award
include such distinguished inventors as Raymond Damadian, who invented
the first Magnetic Resonance (MR) Scanning Machine; Al Gross, wireless
pioneer who invented the walkie-talkie and pager; Stephanie Kwolek,
the inventor of Kevlar® (used in a variety of products from
bullet-proof vests to airplanes); Wilson Greatbatch, creator of
the implantable cardiac pacemaker (the first successful major biomedical
device); and Gertrude Elion, innovator of drugs that combat cancer
and facilitate organ transplantation between non-related donors.
The Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award is conferred annually
by the Lemelson-MIT Program, which recognizes the nation's most
talented inventors and innovators and promotes living role models
in the fields of science, engineering, medicine and entrepreneurship
in the hope of encouraging future generations to follow their example.
Dr. Benerito will be formally presented with the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime
Achievement Award on Wednesday, April 24, at a special ceremony
at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
ABOUT THE LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994
by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife,
Dorothy. The Program's mission is to raise the stature of inventors
and innovators and to foster invention and innovation among young
people. It accomplishes this by celebrating inventor/innovator role
models through outreach activities and annual awards, including
the world's largest for invention — the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT
Prize. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by the Lemelson Foundation,
which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's
National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National
Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University
of Nevada, Reno. Last fall, the Lemelson-MIT Program and MIT Press
released Inventing Modern America: From the Microwave to the Mouse
(www.inventingmodernamerica.com), an illustrated book that profiles
35 American inventors who helped shape the modern world.
Read more about Ruth Benerito.
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