A woman with white hair sitting next to a chemistry apparatus

Ruth Benerito saves cotton

In 1938–39, a department store in the United States capital, Washington, DC, featured a “Fabrics of the Future” exhibit in a street-front window display, which included a mannequin dressed with hat, jacket and skirt made from synthetic fabrics rayon and nylon.

The material known as rayon had been around since the 1880s and was often referred to as artificial silk; the name “rayon” emerged in 1924, “as a generic term for regenerated cellulose fiber”, says Museum Textiles Services (MTS), an organisation that studies and preserves textile products.

In 1889 French scientist Hillaire de Chardonnet exhibited fabric he’d made from nitrocellulose, “turning rags or wood pulp … into fibre, thread, and fabric”.

“Rayon was the first manufactured fibre, but because it is derived from cellulose, it is not considered to be a true synthetic but a semi-synthetic,” MTS says.

Meanwhile, an article headlined “Nylon: A revolution in textiles”, published by the Science History Institute, says the material “first entered the public consciousness in 1938”.

Nylon’s predecessor, rayon, had been touted as artificial silk, “a phrase that implied both economy and imitation, the institute says. “But nylon was billed by its manufacturer, DuPont, as a thing unto itself. As the first commercially viable synthetic fiber, nylon ushered in a fashion revolution based on comfort, ease, and disposability.

“Behind the scenes, the invention of nylon also transformed the chemical industry by proving that the composition of polymers could be predicted and engineered like many other chemical products.”

As with many advances in technology, however, these new materials left casualties in their wakes, and chief among these was the cotton industry.

Consumers were drawn to the easy-care properties of these new materials, says VisionLearning, a website published by the US National Science Foundation and Department of Education.

“Cotton, which had ruled the textile industry for centuries because of its desirable qualities, was suddenly too high maintenance,” it says.

“If the cotton industry was going to survive, something significant was going to need to happen. That ‘something’ came from a team of scientists at the Southern Regional Research Centre in New Orleans, Louisiana, led by chemist Ruth Benerito.”

Ruth Mary Rogan Benerito was born in New Orleans on 12 January 1916. A biography published by Louisiana’s Tulane University says her parents “believed very strongly in women’s rights and education”.

At age 15 she entered Newcomb College, part of Tulane University, intending to study mathematics, but she “quickly discovered that she was better suited to a career in chemistry and graduated at age 19 in 1935 with a bachelor’s degree”.

She earned a master’s degree in chemistry from Tulane in 1938, “one of only two women allowed to take physical chemistry classes”, the school says, and then attended the University of Chicago for her PhD in chemistry, which she completed in 1948.

Because of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War in the following decade, Benerito (she’d married Frank Benerito in 1950) had made her living as a laboratory technician and then as a teacher.

Returning to Louisiana, the VisionLearning article says, she took a job teaching at a high school in New Orleans, “where she was required to teach driver safety as well as science. The problem? Benerito didn’t know how to drive. She was the first safety driving teacher in the state of Louisiana, and the first one to drive into a ditch.”

In 1953 she went to work as a researcher at the Southern Regional Research Centre (SRRC) in New Orleans, which had been operating since 1941 as one of four facilities set up by the US Department of Agriculture to study regional agricultural problems and find new uses for local crops.

For New Orleans, VisionLearning says, “that focus was on peanuts, sweet potatoes and cotton”.

In 1958, Benerito became leader of the SRRC’s Cotton Chemical Reactions Laboratory, tasked with smoothing out cotton to help it compete with the new synthetics.

Cotton is made of strands of polymers, or polysaccharide cellulose chains, held together by weak hydrogen bonds, which break easily during washing and drying, leaving the fabric wrinkled.

“Benerito salvaged the cotton industry by using mono-basic acid chlorides instead of di-basic acid chlorides to crosslink cotton’s cellulose chains and produce a wrinkle, stain, and flame-resistant fabric,” says an article published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Her modernised process resulted in fabric with a better shape and appearance, known as ‘wash-and-wear’.”

The Tulane University biography of Benerito says she “spent her life insisting that she did not deserve full credit for the revolutionary invention”.

“‘I don’t like it to be said that I invented wash-wear, because there were any number of people working on it, and there are various processes by which you give cotton those properties. No one person discovered it or was responsible for it. But I contributed to new processes of doing it.’”

Benerito worked for the USDA until 1986 and then returned to teaching chemistry well into her 80s at the University of New Orleans. She held 55 US patents and published more than 200 papers. She died on 5 October 2013.