Here’s another story about a pioneering female scientist, the chemist, Ruth Benerito who died recently. Like most women who excel in traditionally male fields, she had a family that encouraged all the girls to get a good education. Born in New Orleans, where few girls went on to higher education, her father was a civil engineer and her mother a feminist activist and artist, both of whom encouraged her to be interested in science.
Wrinkle free cotton is not a subject that pops into most peoples’ minds as an important subject to work on, but cotton is a hugely important industry in the USA and elsewhere, and several decades ago, housewives spent hours each week ironing cotton clothing, so anything that promised to reduce their work would be a huge improvement to their quality of life. The discovery was made by her in the 1960s when new artificial fibres – invented in the 1930s and 40s were coming onto the market, so threatening the health of the cotton industry.
Benerito worked for the US Agriculture Department’s Research Centre in New Orleans, where she invented a method to cross link the bonds between cellulose molecules which comprise the cotton fibres. She described it as being akin to getting a permanent wave in your hair. She and her colleagues took out a patent on the method in 1969, soalllowing chemicaly treated cotton to compete with the drip-dry synthetics. Later improvements allowed the cotton fabric to hold permanent creases and be flame and stain resistent. She also worked on making cotton treatment more environmentally friendly. By the time she retired in 1986 she had been granted an impressive 55 patents, including one for emulsifying fat (ie breaking it into tiny globules that are easier to break down and do not clog blood vessels) for intravenous feeding, used to treat soldiers in the Korean War.
She said, “Nature made cotton pretty good to begin with, I just gave it a little boost. “
In 1971 Ladies Home Journal named her as one of the most important women in the USA, but she claimed she had not set out to help the lives of women, ‘I was just interested in the application of physical chemistry to solve practical problems.