Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

Ruth Benerito dies at 97; chemist helped develop wrinkle-resistant cotton

Colleges and UniversitiesObituariesObituary DatabaseChemistryTulane University

Her name graces no labels, but millions wear Ruth Benerito creations daily.

A government chemist, Benerito led a team that helped create wrinkle-resistant cotton — an innovation that spared homemakers hours of ironing and breathed new life into an industry smothered in rayon, polyester and other synthetics.

Benerito, who was credited with 55 patents and more than 200 professional publications, died Oct. 5 at her home in Metairie, La., family members said. She was 97.

Until Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, she had lived in the same house for 56 years, sharing it in her later years with an older sister.

Benerito was sometimes called the Queen of Cotton, according to the American Chemical Society, which installed a plaque honoring her team's work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory she called home for nearly 33 years. Last February, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) lauded her achievements, along with those of other little-known inventors, at a committee meeting he chaired on American competitiveness.

"We can thank chemist Ruth Benerito for developing wrinkle-free cotton, which is in the shirts many Americans wear today, including mine," he said.

Though she always wanted to be a scientist, Benerito never set out to make lawmakers look hearing-room crisp.

"A lot of times what you discover is more from serendipity than what you set out to do," she told Investor's Business Daily in 2002. "That's why I think you can't manage science. You can't say that on a certain month, day or year you're going to do such and such a thing."

Her breakthrough came amid years of work by scientists eager to unrumple cotton garments and free women from the iron's grip. Over just a few decades, new, easy-care synthetics had battered the cotton market, cutting its share by 50% from 1960 to 1975. Some analysts predicted that by 2000, U.S. cotton would be a cool, dry memory.

In 1958, Benerito took charge of the cotton chemicals laboratory at the USDA's Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans. After years of experimenting, she figured out how to strengthen the bonds among cotton's molecular strands with a technique called "cross-linking." With chemical processes she developed, the stronger bonds withstood pounding in washers, decreasing wrinkles in the garments.

"It's sort of like when a woman gets her hair in a permanent wave," Benerito once told an interviewer. "You have to take these long chains and cross-link them, connecting the two chains in a specific arrangement."

The development "opened more doors down the line that people hadn't thought about," including flame-retardant clothing and bedding, said Rini Paiva, executive director of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Va. Benerito was inducted in 2008.

Though most of Benerito's patents are related to cotton, she also pioneered a life-saving treatment during the Korean War, allowing intravenous delivery of fat to wounded soldiers who were too sick to eat.

Born in New Orleans Jan. 12, 1916, Ruth Mary Rogan Benerito often said her civil engineer father and artist mother were early feminists, encouraging their daughters in pursuits that at the time were seen as unladylike.

Graduating from high school at 14, Benerito went on to Newcomb College and was one of two women allowed to take physical chemistry at Newcomb's affiliated school, Tulane University.

"We took it with the engineers," she said in a 1986 oral history, "and they didn't like it one bit."

Even after receiving her master's degree in physics from Tulane, Benerito had a tough time finding a job. She taught math, science and driving safety in nearby Jefferson Parish, although at the time she didn't know how to drive.

When her family moved to Chicago, she went along. In 1948, she received her doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago, shuttling back to New Orleans during summers to teach at Tulane.

In 1950, she married Frank "Benny" Benerito, who died 20 years later. She has no immediate survivors.

After retiring from her research career, she continued to teach. She was an adjunct professor at the University of New Orleans when poor vision forced her to stop at 81.

Five years later, Benerito was honored with the 2002 Lemelson-MIT lifetime achievement award.

"It's safe to say," said Merton Flemings, who was then director of the Lemelson-MIT program, "that Ruth Benerito has made us all more comfortable in our clothes over the years."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Colleges and UniversitiesObituariesObituary DatabaseChemistryTulane University
Comments
Loading