The woman who helped revolutionize the textile industry through the introduction of easy-care cotton -- the precursor to "wash and wear" clothing -- was today named winner of the eighth annual Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation. Dr. Ruth Rogan Benerito is being recognized for vital contributions that helped transform the textile, wood and paper industries.
SAVING THE COTTON INDUSTRY
Following World War II, when synthetic fabrics were gaining notoriety and preference among Americans, Benerito helped the struggling cotton industry regain favor by modernizing its manufacturing processes. While working as a Research Leader for the Southern Regional Research Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she developed the theory of crosslinking cellulose chains in cotton to make the fabric wrinkle-, stain- and flame-resistant. The resulting fabric maintained its shape and appearance better than previous cotton threads, resulting in what is commonly referred to as "wash and wear." Her ingenuity led to the first of 55 U.S. patented processes, which eventually spread throughout the cotton industry.
During her 33-year career with the Research Center, Benerito worked tirelessly to resolve numerous problems in the cotton industry. She revolutionized the pretreatment of cotton by creating an environmentally safe procedure. The process involves replacing the standard mercerization of cotton -- treatment of cotton with sodium hydroxide -- with radiofrequency cold plasma cleaning thereby eliminating serious environmental hazards. This development was later adopted by Japan's textile industry.
Benerito has been recognized countless times and has earned several awards, including the U.S.D.A.'s highest honor -- its Distinguished Service Award, the American Chemical Society's Garvan Award, the Southwest Regional Award, the U.S. Civil Service Commission's Federal Woman's Award and the Southern Chemist Award, of which she was the first female recipient. She was also recognized by President Lyndon B. Johnson for her scientific and teaching achievements.
"It's safe to say that Ruth Benerito has made us all more comfortable in our clothes over the years," said Merton Flemings, Director of the Lemelson- MIT Program. "In addition to saving an industry and revolutionizing clothing manufacturing processes, she has also shared her enthusiasm and joy of teaching with countless students. For all her contributions to our society, she is truly deserving of this Award."
TRUE CALLING IN EDUCATION
Although recognized by most as an inventor and researcher, Benerito devoted much of her career to teaching others. She shared her knowledge first as a social worker in New Orleans, then as a high school teacher in mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry. In 1940, she left for Virginia to teach chemistry at Randolph-Macon Woman's College. Three years later, she returned to New Orleans as a chemistry professor at Sophie Newcomb College, the women's college at Tulane University and one of her alma maters. She later taught at Tulane Medical School and Graduate School as well as the University of New Orleans.
Benerito asked all of her students to use education for personal enrichment rather than as a means of making money. "I've always believed in education for education's sake," she said. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree at Sophie Newcomb College, she continued her studies as a graduate scholar in chemistry at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and completed her Master's Degree in Physics at Tulane University. In 1948, Benerito earned a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Chicago.
Benerito, a modest woman, was surprised by her selection. "I am honored and humbled to accept the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award," she said. "I am proud to be recognized among the most inventive minds in our great country, knowing those who have preceded me with this Award."
Benerito's father, a graduate of Tulane (1907) and a civil engineer, insisted that she attend college, always preaching that an education was the one thing his children could acquire and hold forever. Her mother, unlike most women of the time, was a college graduate -- Sophie Newcomb class of 1910. She was a trained artist and active feminist, and encouraged her daughter's love of science and education.
Today, at the age of 86, Benerito still lives in her native New Orleans. She retired from the Southern Regional Research Center in 1986, but continued sharing her experiences as a professor. Although Louisiana's State University System has strict rules against faculty teaching past the age of 70, an exception was made for Benerito at the request of her students and peers. Benerito taught until age 81 as a professor of chemistry at the University of New Orleans. Currently, she is Professor Emeritus, at Tulane University Medical School, Department of Biochemistry, and Tulane University Graduate School.
Other recipients of the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award include such distinguished inventors as Raymond Damadian, who invented the first Magnetic Resonance (MR) Scanning Machine; Al Gross, wireless pioneer who invented the walkie-talkie and pager; Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar(R) (used in a variety of products from bullet-proof vests to airplanes); Wilson Greatbatch, creator of the implantable cardiac pacemaker (the first successful major biomedical device); and Gertrude Elion, innovator of drugs that combat cancer and facilitate organ transplantation between non- related donors.
The Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award is conferred annually by the Lemelson-MIT Program, which recognizes the nation's most talented inventors and innovators and promotes living role models in the fields of science, engineering, medicine and entrepreneurship in the hope of encouraging future generations to follow their example. Dr. Benerito will be formally presented with the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award on Wednesday, April 24, at a special ceremony at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
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