Over the span of more than fifty years and through more than fifty patents granted, Ruth Rogan Benerito used her broad scientific training to transform the cotton, wood, and paper industries. The most noteworthy benefit for consumers has been easy-care clothing.
Benerito was born in New Orleans in 1916. Her mother, a prototypical feminist, encouraged her daughter's love of science, in spite of the rampant sexism she would encounter. Benerito rose to the occasion, earning scholarships to Newcomb College (BS in Chemistry, 1935), Bryn Mawr College (Graduate Scholar, 1935-1936), Tulane University (MS in Physics, 1938), and the University of Chicago (PhD in Physical Chemistry, 1948).
Upon earning her doctorate, Benerito became an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Newcomb College. Her teaching and research included advanced quantitative analysis and physical chemistry, organic chemistry, kinetics, and thermodynamics. Her specialty was the use of cellulose chemistry to solve practical problems in the cotton, wood, and paper industries. In 1953, Benerito began a prolific 33-year career at the Southern Regional Research Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. First, she led a project, sponsored by the Surgeon General, to develop a fat emulsion for intravenous feeding of long-term medical patients (1953-1958). Then Benerito moved on to her best known work, the invention of the "easy-care cotton" process, which resulted in "wash and wear" clothing. Rejecting the industry standard reagents for cotton fibers, Benerito found a way to use certain long-chain, mono-basic acid chlorides as reagents, creating a new method of crosslinking cellulose chains in cotton. This work led to patented processes, which eventually spread throughout the industry, for manufacturing wrinkle, stain, and flame-resistant cotton fabrics.
In 1959, Benerito became Research Leader of the lab's Natural Polymers Division, a post she held until retiring in 1986. Her other innovations in textiles include the use of radiofrequency cold plasmas to clean cotton and ready it for treatment with film or dye. This method, which has been adopted by the textile industry in Japan, takes the place of mercerization (the pretreatment of cotton with sodium hydroxide), thereby eliminating a serious environmental hazard. Benerito also invented and patented processes that create and etch "glassy" polymeric cellulosic materials. These materials, resembling "petrified cotton," resist both acids and alkalis. They can be used as conductive, reflective, adhesive, or even ornamental coatings.
Many of Benerito's inventions have applications beyond the cotton industry. For example, her work in the synthesis of chemically modified cottons has been adopted for the development of new wood products and epoxy resins. Benerito earned 55 U.S. patents and a glowing reputation within the cotton, wood, and paper industries. She won numerous awards, including the USDA's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, and the American Chemical Society's Garvan Award (both in 1970). She was the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award winner in 2002 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008.
After retiring from the Southern Regional Research Center in 1986 at the age of 70, Benerito taught in the Chemistry Department at the University of New Orleans, where she continued to inspire beginning students and guide advanced students in her many realms of expertise until she was 81.
Benerito died on October 5, 2013 at the age of 97 in Metairie, La.