Ruth Benerito

Modernized the cotton industry through her scientific invention of wrinkle-free, wash-and-wear fabrics.
Winner

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 BS 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 MS in Physics from Tulane University (1938) and her PhD 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 had 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.

Benerito received the U.S.D.A.'s highest honor—the 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. Benerito passed in October of 2013 in Metairie, FL.