Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, American consumers were introduced to synthetic clothing made of nylon and spandex. While families appreciated the convenience of not needing to iron these garments due to their wrinkle-free properties, for cotton farmers who relied on the clothing industry for a considerable part of their revenue, these were threatening developments.
However, many credit National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Ruth Benerito and her work in developing wrinkle-resistant cotton with saving the cotton industry during a time of uncertainty.
An Excellent Education
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Jan. 12, 1916, Benerito was fortunate enough to receive an education during a time when not many women had the opportunity to do so. In 1935, she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Sophie Newcomb College, the women’s college of Tulane University. This accomplishment was followed by a master’s degree from Tulane in 1938 and a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1948.
In an interview with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of her induction into the Agricultural Research Service Hall of Fame, Benerito explained that while she was a student, the University of Chicago had a large concentration of Nobel laureates teaching there.
“Sometimes you were only one or two in a class, and I was in the biggest class, like 10-15, so you got to know the professors and they got to know you,” she said. “So it was a good education. I was well grounded because I was taught [...] by the greatest chemists of the last century. I think that's what gave me such a good background in chemistry.”
Developing Wrinkle-Resistant Cotton
After landing a job at the USDA, Benerito began researching the properties of cellulose chemistry to solve practical problems in the textile, wood and paper industries. This led her team to discover a way to treat cotton fibers by using mono-basic acid chlorides. According to an article published by the Science History Institute, this new method of crosslinking gave cotton wrinkle-resistant qualities, allowing it to compete with nylon and spandex as a “wash and wear” clothing material.
While she received numerous accolades throughout her life for this discovery, in her interview with the USDA, Benerito was quick to mention the contributions of her team.
“I don’t like it to be said that I invented wash wear because there are a number of people who worked on it and the various processes by which you give cotton those properties. No one person discovered it or is responsible for it, but I contributed to new processes of doing it,” she said.
An Educator at Heart
In her later years, while continuing to research the properties of cotton fibers, Benerito taught classes at Tulane University and at the University of New Orleans. Even after retiring from the USDA in 1986, she continued teaching until 1997, at age 81.
“I enjoy teaching; that’s why I kept doing it,” Benerito told the USDA. “I think you get a lot of satisfaction seeing your students do well themselves later on in life.”
Learn More About Our Amazing Inductees
Throughout her career, Benerito earned 55 patents and numerous honors including the Garvan Medal from the American Chemical Society and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award.
To discover the inspirational stories behind more of our world-changing Inductees, we invite you to visit our website.