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Lemelsons go to Kamen and inventor of wash-and-wear fabric

Inventor Dean Kamen, who won the Lemelson-MIT Program's $500,000 prize this year, stands on his latest creation, the Segway Human Transporter.
Inventor Dean Kamen, who won the Lemelson-MIT Program's $500,000 prize this year, stands on his latest creation, the Segway Human Transporter.
Photo courtesy / DEKA Research and Development
Ruth Rogan Benerito, inventor of wash-and-wear fabric, is winner of the        Lemelson Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation.
Ruth Rogan Benerito, inventor of wash-and-wear fabric, is winner of the Lemelson Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation.
Photo / Mary Jackson

Medical technology pioneer Dean Kamen, an advocate for science and invention among students, has been awarded the 2002 Lemelson-MIT Program 's $500,000 prize, the world's largest single award for invention.

Ruth Rogan Benerito, who helped revolutionize the textile industry through the introduction of easy-care cotton, has won the eighth annual Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation.

MIT Professor Merton C. Flemings of materials science and engineering, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, said: "I can't think of a more deserving innovator to celebrate than Dean Kamen. He is a true role model for young people. We are particularly proud to honor an inventor whose goals so closely mirror those of Jerry Lemelson and our program."

In naming Benerito, Flemings said: "It's safe to say that Ruth Benerito has made us all more comfortable in our clothes over the years. In addition to saving an industry and revolutionizing clothing manufacturing processes, she also has shared her enthusiasm and joy of teaching with countless students. For all her contributions to our society, she is truly deserving of this award."

The prizes were scheduled to be presented today, (April 24) at a special ceremony at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


Kamen's inventions include a wearable infusion pump that revolutionized drug delivery; a portable dialysis machine that makes it easier for patients to undergo dialysis in their own homes; a robotic wheelchair able to climb stairs and stand upright; and his latest machine--the Segway Human Transporter--the first self-balancing personal transporter for short-distance travel.

Kamen's contributions to technology and innovation reach well beyond his inventions. A graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Kamen founded the national nonprofit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1989 to inspire an appreciation of science, technology and engineering in young people, their schools and their communities. FIRST hosts the annual FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students and the FIRST Lego League junior robotics tournaments for children 9-14 years old. In 2002, FIRST competitions will excite more than 40,000 young people about the accessibility, fun and importance of science and engineering. Kamen has announced that he will donate the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize to FIRST.

While an undergraduate, Kamen invented the first wearable infusion pump for delivering precise amounts of medication to patients. The pump was a major breakthrough for diabetics and other patients requiring steady doses of medication. It quickly gained acceptance from the medical community for use with a variety of medical conditions. Patients could use the pump to reliably dispense medication (such as insulin) and lead relatively normal and longer lives, while reducing complications and painful daily injections. Kamen founded his first medical device company, AutoSyringe Inc., to manufacture and market the infusion pumps. At age 30, he sold the company to Baxter International Corp.

Kamen, 51, later developed a portable peritoneal dialysis machine that patients may use in their own homes, even while asleep. The machine is the size of a VCR and weighs only 22 pounds--much less than the larger machines that required patients to make frequent visits to dialysis centers.

One of Kamen's most significant inventions was the Independence IBOT Mobility System, unveiled in 1999. The IBOT battery-powered wheelchair gives the disabled the same mobility and freedom as people with use of their legs. It can climb stairs and stand upright on two wheels, enabling users to see at eye-level activities once unthinkable for wheelchair-bound individuals. The IBOT employs an advanced system of sensors, gyroscopes and computers to constantly adjust and balance itself and keep the user stabilized.


While working as a research leader for the Southern Regional Research Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture after World War II, Benerito 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 fabric. Her ingenuity led to the first of 55 U.S. patented processes, which eventually spread throughout the cotton industry.

Benerito, 86, has earned several awards, including the USDA's 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.

Although recognized by most as an inventor and researcher, Benerito devoted much of her career to teaching. 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 B.S. from Sophie Newcomb College, she continued her studies as a graduate scholar in chemistry at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and completed her M.S. in physics at Tulane University. In 1948, Benerito earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Chicago.

Benerito, who still lives in her native New Orleans, 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."

The Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program's mission is to raise the stature of inventors and innovators and to foster invention and innovation among young people.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 24, 2002.

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