Gender Issues: A Little Known Chemist Who Changed Your Life

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Oct 21, 2013    •    899 Views

Ruth Benerito, a chemist who died on October 5th, never won a Nobel Prize. Many of us would say that she should have.

Dr. Benerito enabled countless women to become more productive by perfecting wrinkle free cotton. Normal cotton is composed of strands of glucose molecules that create wrinkles because they separate when washed. By cross linking the strands, the fabric could be reinforced and the wrinkling eliminated. Yes, permanent press, a combination of cotton and synthetic fiber already existed. However, Dr. Benerito’s innovation was 100% cotton that needed little or no ironing.

Her NY Times obituary says she liberated “people from hours of household drudgery.” I perceive her achievement as much more economic. My goodness! The immense opportunity cost of spending all of those hours moving an iron back and forth when you could be doing something so much more productive. Diminishing the time and energy required by housework freed women to do more personally and professionally.

Beyond her feminist impact, Dr. Benerito and her colleagues reinvigorated the cotton industry. After WW II, only when cotton became wrinkle, stain and flame resistant could it compete against newly popular synthetics like nylon.

Dr. Benerito was born in 1916, finished high school at 14, and got her B.S. from Tulane’s Sophie Newcomb in 1935. One of 2 women permitted to take chemistry at Tulane, she continued onward to a graduate program at Bryn Mawr, then an M.S. in physics from Tulane, and in 1948, earned her Ph.D in Physical Chemistry at the University of Chicago. A high school teacher during the depression, a researcher at the U.S.D.A Southern Regional Center in New Orleans from 1953 to 1986, and a college professor, she had more than 50 patents.

Meeting Ruth Benerito in this 4 minute video is an inspirational pleasure.

Sources and resources: Her NY Times obituary, and this story of her life in the Wall Street Journal convey the picture of a role model. At the Lemelson-MIT website, commemorating her lifetime achievement award in 2002, is a concise and understandable summary of her work.

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