Ruth Benerito’s important legacy: Better laundry through chemistry

October 8, 2013
Ruth Benerito (Eric Risberg/AP)
Ruth Benerito (Eric Risberg/AP)

As Nobel Prizes are handed out this week in the sciences, it’s fitting to take note of a woman whose accomplishments in the field of chemistry – as complex as any – made life easier for so many and liberated homemakers from the ironing board.

Dr. Ruth Benerito died Saturday at 97 in her Louisiana home. Though few would recognize the name of the woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008, most are familiar with her work. “A chemist long affiliated with the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Benerito helped perfect modern wrinkle-free cotton, colloquially known as permanent press, in work that she and her colleagues began in the late 1950s,” is how her obituary in the New York Times explained it. The achievement “is considered one of the most significant technological developments of the 20th century.”

The New Orleans-born Benerito’s life was about breaking barriers. She started college at 15 and went on to earn a PhD in chemistry from the University of Chicago. She held more than 50 patents, not all in cotton chemistry. After her retirement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she went on to teach at the University of New Orleans until she was 81.

And she was modest, as many accomplished women were and continue to be, emphasizing the collaboration that goes into any ground-breaking scientific research.

In 2013, it’s difficult to imagine the hours once needed to press wrinkled clothing into submission – and clothing could include sheets in particularly fastidious households. The rigorous ritual of ironing generally fell into the category of women’s work, of course, and it wasn’t easy. You had to be careful to control heat levels, keep those seams and pleats in check and iron to perfection without a stain or scorch. For a lot of people – including everyone in my working-class neighborhood – having “help” or a dry cleaner do the work was an unthinkable luxury, especially when there were kids in the house.

Beneficiaries of Benerito’s innovations and the fabric blends that have come after should consider how work inside and outside the home and taking care of self and family members could be even more complicated with yet another thing to add to the list.

It’s no wonder that it took a multi-tasking, pioneering woman to help crack the complex chemical code that made a wash-and-wear lifestyle possible.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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