Ruth Benerito, Agriculture Dept. chemist who made cotton wrinkle-free, dies at 97


Dr. Benerito, an Agriculture Department chemist who was credited with helping create wrinkle-free cotton, died Oct. 5. She was 97. (Courtesy of Lemelson-MIT Program)
October 8, 2013

Ruth Benerito, an Agriculture Department chemist who played a leading role in the development of wrinkle-free cotton in the 1960s, an innovation that simplified housework for millions of homemakers, reinvigorated the U.S. cotton industry and generally made the world appear less rumpled, died Oct. 5 at her home in Metairie, La. She was 97.

Her death was confirmed by Rini Paiva, the executive director of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, which inducted Dr. Benerito in 2008. Paiva said she did not know the cause of death.

For generations, “King Cotton” was a dominant crop of the American South, where Dr. Benerito was born and where she worked for nearly her entire life. Lightweight and breathable, it was a fabric of choice for clothing, bedding, table linens and other staples of everyday living.

But cotton had one notable drawback. During laundering, the fabric wrinkled so severely that it could not be comfortably worn, slept on or displayed for polite company without ironing. Depending on a household’s size, weekly ironing could consume the better part of a day — or longer.

In the 1930s and ’40s, newly developed synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester began to challenge cotton’s popularity. The manmade textiles had their imperfections — including what some consumers considered an uncomfortable texture — but could generally be “drip dried” and worn without pressing.

Beginning in the late 1950s, Dr. Benerito led a team at the Agriculture Department’s Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans that would forever change the nature of mass-market cotton. She and her colleagues devised a chemical treatment that “cross-linked,” or reinforced, the bonds of cellulose molecules in cotton fibers, making the fabric less likely to wrinkle.

“It’s sort of like when a woman gets her hair in a permanent wave,” Dr. Benerito once told Investor’s Business Daily. “You have to take these long chains and cross-link them, connecting the two chains in a specific arrangement.”

In 1969, she and her colleagues received a patent for a “method for producing resilient cotton fabrics through partial esterification.” Chemically treated cotton — billed over the years as “easy care,” “wash and wear,” “durable press” and “permanent press” — allowed the fabric to vigorously compete in the marketplace with synthetic textiles.

Subsequent refinements of Dr. Benerito’s chemical treatment process allowed fabrics to hold permanent creases, such as those used in formal pants, and to be stain- and flame-resistant. Flame retardants are often applied to mattresses, children’s clothing and firefighting and military uniforms.

In 2002, Dr. Benerito received the prestigious Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology lifetime achievement award.

“It’s safe to say,” Merton Flemings, the director of the Lemelson-MIT program, remarked at the time, “that Ruth Benerito has made us all more comfortable in our clothes over the years.”

Ruth Mary Rogan was born on Jan. 12, 1916, in New Orleans. Her father was a civil engineer; her mother, a college graduate, was an artist and feminist activist, according to a profile in the Chicago Tribune. Both parents encouraged her to pursue her interest in science, a field in which few women worked at the time.

She received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1935 from the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, a women’s school at Tulane University, where she had enrolled at 15 and where she said she was one of two women admitted to chemistry classes. She received a master’s degree in physics from Tulane in 1938 and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1948.

Dr. Benerito worked for the Agriculture Department from 1953 until her retirement in 1986 and received a total of 55 patents, including one for a fat emulsion for intravenous feeding that was used to treat wounded soldiers in the Korean War. After her initial work on easy-care cotton, she was credited with helping improve the chemical treatment process to make it more environmentally friendly.

“Nature made cotton pretty good to begin with,” she was quoted as saying in David Niven’s book “Up! A Pragmatic Look at the Direction of Life.” “I just gave it a little boost.”

Besides her work at the Agriculture Department, Dr. Benerito taught at institutions including Tulane and the University of New Orleans. Her husband, Frank Benerito, whom she married in 1950, died after two decades of marriage. Dr. Benerito had no immediate survivors, Paiva said.

Dr. Benerito’s honors included the Agriculture Department’s distinguished service award. In 1971, Ladies’ Home Journal named her one of the most important women in the United States.

Although she was credited with improving the lives of women, who had long shouldered the burden of household ironing duties, Dr. Benerito said that she set out with a broader goal in mind.

“I was just interested,” she told an interviewer, “in the application of physical chemistry to solve practical problems.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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