If you grabbed a cotton dress shirt out of the dryer this morning and put it on without ironing it, you probably should be thanking a chemist named Ruth Benerito.
In the mid-1960s, Benerito and two colleagues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed and patented a process for chemically cross-linking and reinforcing the chains of cellulose molecules in cotton fibers, which enabled them to stay in place under the stress of washing and wear. The “wrinkle-free” garments that manufacturers produced using Benerito’s process helped to rescue a U.S. cotton industry threatened by the popularity of synthetic fabrics such as Du Pont’s “wash and wear” polyester.
More important, Benerito enabled us to keep wearing comfortable, fashionable classic cotton garments without looking as we’d slept in them.
Here are some fascinating facts about Benerito, who died on October 5 at age 97 in Metairie, La.:
- Benerito, a New Orleans native, was only 15 when she started in the women’s college at Tulane University.
- During the Great Depression, she worked briefly as a high school teacher. She taught science, math and driver’s education, even though she never had driven a car herself.
- After joining the USDA in 1953, she worked for a time to develop a method of emulsifying fat so that it could be used in the intravenous feeding of wounded soldiers.
- Benerito, who eventually was awarded more than 50 patents, was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008.
- After retiring, Benerito joined the faculty of the University of New Orleans and taught there until she was 81.
- In an interview with a newspaper reporter, she once explained the process for creating wrinkle-resistant cotton by saying, “It’s sort of like when a woman gets her hair in a permanent wave.”
Here’s a 2002 interview with Benerito, on the occasion of her receiving the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award:
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