You know those the pants and blouse that you can always count on to resist wrinkles and hold their shape after a wash? Well, you have WYSK Dr. Ruth Benerito to thank for that! A chemist with the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Benerito is known for helping to develop modern, wrinkle-free cotton, otherwise known as permanent press. After a long and illustrious career, Dr. Benerito passed away Saturday at the age of 97.
Dr. Benerito grew up in New Orleans as Ruth Rogan. It’s been said that her father, who was a civil engineer, made sure that his daughters had the same educational opportunities that were available to boys. Upon completing high school at the young age of 14, she went straight on to Tulane University, earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1935. Following graduation, Dr. Benerito become a teacher at a local high school, not only teaching science and math, but also driver’s education, although she had never driven a car!
While working as a teacher, Dr. Benerito continued her advanced education at Tulane, earning a master’s degree while attending night school. Following World War II, she received her Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago.
In 1950, Ruth Rogan married Frank Benerito. It was at that time that she started working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Southern Regional Research Laboratories in New Orleans, where she went on to lead the team that eventually ironed out the wrinkles in cotton; the patent was filed in 1953. Dr. Benerito spent the length of her career at the USDA, until retiring in 1986.
As unusual as it was for a woman of her time to earn a Ph.D. in the sciences, it was almost unheard of for a woman to go into textile science. But, Dr. Benerito proved herself among the men in the mills and in the lab, going on to hold more than 50 patents, including those for stain-resistance and flame-retardant cotton, which today is incorporated into children’s sleepwear, mattresses and uniforms for firefighters and the military.
Aside the obvious affects these innovations had on diminishing women’s housekeeping work, they also are considered by many to be some of the most significant technological developments of the 20th century. Collectively, the discoveries were credited for saving the then dying cotton industry, which was facing some serious competition from synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester that were dominating the market.
So the next time you pull your clothes out of the dryer, be thankful to Dr. Benerito for all the ironing you don’t have to do!Lead photo – Mary Jackson, courtesy of Lemelson-MIT Program. ©2003 Massachusetts Institute of Technology