She is credited with “saving the cotton industry” and saving the lives of Korean War soldiers. Who am I talking about? This week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Ruth Benerito! Born Ruth Rogan in 1916, she was raised in New Orleans and, with her parents’ strong encouragement, obtained an education few woman of the era were afforded. She started college studying chemistry, physics, and math when she was only 15. She hoped to go into research, but the Great Depression meant job opportunities were scarce, so she took a position as a high school teacher. Not willing to give up on her dreams of doing research, she took night classes to obtain a master’s degree, then went on to earn a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago. She began working at the USDA Southern Regional Research Laboratories in 1950, where she carried out the majority of her future work.
Ruth is best known for her role in the discovery of a way to create wrinkle-resistant cotton. In the 1950s, the cotton industry was facing a grim future due to the introduction of synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester, etc.) that did not require ironing. Ruth made cotton competitive again by inventing a technique to attach organic molecules to the chains of cellulose making up cotton. This “crosslinking” strengthened the bonds between the cellulose chains, preventing wrinkling. This process of crosslinking could also be used to introduce molecules that made cotton stain and flame-resistant. Ruth received over 50 patents for her work, but insisted that the entire research team, as well as those who helped pave the way, be given due credit.
Less well known, but certainly no less important, is Ruth’s contribution to medicinal chemistry – during the Korean War she led a team to develop a fat emulsion that could be used for IV feeding of seriously injured soldiers and other patients too sick to eat.
Later in life, she returned to teaching part-time at Tulane and the University of New Orleans while continuing her research at the USDA. She retired from the USDA in 1986 but continued teaching until she was 81. In 2002, Ruth received Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions in research and teaching, and she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008. She passed away in 2013 at the age of 97.
Photo credit: Lemelson-MIT Program, via Associated Press