Ruth Rogan Benerito, Leader of the Team That Made Permanent-Press Fabrics, Dies at 97 in the Times-Picayune
October 8, 2013 - New Orleans, LA
By John Pope
Ruth Rogan Benerito, the chemist who led the New Orleans team that discovered how to make permanent-press fabrics, died Saturday (Oct. 5) at her Metairie home. She was 97.
Dr. Benerito and her colleagues worked at the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Southern Regional Research Center on the Lakefront.
In the late 1950s, they discovered a way to make fabric that would never need ironing by treating cotton fibers so that all the chainlike cellulose molecules were chemically joined, according to an article on the Chemical Heritage Foundation website. Hydrogen bonds would make cellulose molecules stick together, but those are easily broken, making the fabric susceptible to wrinkling.
The New Orleans researchers found a way to strengthen the bonds between cellulose molecules by inserting short organic molecules between them, like the rungs of a ladder, according to the article. The resulting product was one enormous, wrinkle-resistant molecule, and a boon to college students and overworked parents everywhere.
“When I was old enough to take care of my own clothes, I was so glad,” said Liddy Tripp Hanemann, the daughter of Verne Tripp, one of Dr. Benerito’s colleagues. “To this day, I think, ‘Oh, great, I don't have to iron it.’”
In recognition of her achievement, Dr. Benerito was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008.
Although she was lionized for this discovery, Dr. Benerito consistently insisted that she was part of a group that helped develop a process that textile scientists had been studying for more than a century. “No one person discovered it or was responsible for it,” she told The New York Times. “But I contributed to new processes of doing it.”
Dr. Benerito, who held more than 50 patents, was the first woman to receive the Southern Chemist Award, and President Lyndon B. Johnson presented her with the Federal Women’s Award. Among the other honors she received were the Garvan Medal, the Agriculture Department’s Distinguished Service Award and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award.
A lifelong New Orleanian who made inroads in what had been regarded as a man’s field, Dr. Benerito entered Newcomb College when she was 15. After graduating with a chemistry degree, she earned a master’s degree in the subject at Tulane University and a doctorate in physical chemistry at the University of Chicago.
Between earning her master’s and doctoral degrees, she taught at Newcomb and at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, now Randolph College, after it started admitting men in 2007.
Dr. Benerito started working at the Agriculture Department’s research center in 1953. She also helped develop a fat emulsion that was used to feed long-term hospital patients.
She retired from the center in 1986 and joined the chemistry faculty at the University of New Orleans, teaching there until she was 81.
A Mass will be said Thursday (Oct. 10) at 11 a.m. at the Garden of Memories Funeral Home, 4900 Airline Drive, Metairie. Visitation will begin at 9 a.m. Burial will be in Hope Mausoleum.
Link to The Times-Picayune