NEW ORLEANS (AP) - To cotton farmers in the South, Ruth Rogan Benerito was a hero.
As a scientist for the Depart-ment of Agriculture in the 1960s, Benerito was on a mission to improve on Mother Nature. The result: wrinkle-free cotton.
The 86-year-old retiree, who holds some 55 patents, has been honored with the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for Invention. She was given the award Wednesday night in San Francisco.
Patented in 1969, her easy-care cotton process gave cotton growers a fighting chance against new wrinkle-free synthetics.
"In those days, the synthetic materials were very popular, and worldwide they were trying to make cotton compete with synthetics," Benerito said.
Benerito began her career at a time when women weren't expected to go into scientific fields. But her mother, an artist and early feminist, encouraged her to become anything she wanted.
After finishing high school at 14, Benerito waited a year and then enrolled at Newcomb College, the women's college at Tulane University. Majoring in chemistry, with minors in physics and math, she was one of only two women allowed to take physical chemistry courses at the university in New Orleans.
She earned her bachelor's degree in 1935, at age 19, and went on to earn a master's at Tulane and her doctorate at the University of Chicago.
In 1953, she joined the Agriculture Department's South-ern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, where she worked for 33 years. Her specialty became the use of cellulose chemistry to solve practical problems in the cotton, wood and paper industries. But she also invented a fat emulsion for intravenous feeding in long-term medical patients.
"Everybody that knew her and worked with her just loved her because she was just so technically competent and so gracious," said Gene Blanchard, acting research leader of the cotton, textile and chemistry research unit at the research center.
Benerito also broke down barriers with her talent for science, Blanchard said.
"Back when she started, women weren't so prevalent in the workplace, especially in scientific areas. But she established herself as a very competent worker," he said. "No one ever gave her any problems."
Since retiring in 1986, Benerito has continued to tutor science students to keep busy.
When Benerito heard about her lifetime achievement award two months ago, she said she was surprised she was still earning accolades this late in her career.
"I had a telephone call on Valentine's Day," she said. "We were playing pinochle and we all laughed about it."
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