Fabrics of invention: Patsy Sherman

As the fashion world descends on Paris for Spring 2016 Menswear collections from June 24-28, DiscovHER spotlights Patsy O’Connell Sherman, co-inventor of one of the most lucrative textile innovations of the 21st-century. One of very few women chemists in the 1950s, Sherman co-created Scotchgard™ – a stain repellent and remover to keep fabrics looking better. Today used on everything from clothing, to carpets to car seats.

A truly accidental discovery

The year is 1953. In a 3M laboratory in Minnesota, newly-employed research chemist Patsy Sherman is working on a project for the U.S. military to develop a material able to withstand deterioration from jet fuel. A lab assistant accidentally spills Sherman’s fluorochemical liquid - a chemical compound containing fluorine - on her tennis shoes. The liquid cannot be removed, is resistant to water and other substances and remarkably keeps that part of the shoe spotless. Together with a 3M colleague, Samuel Smith, Sherman realizes the spill may in fact hold the key to protecting against spills. A great deal of experimentation eventually results in filing a patent for a fluorochemical polymer – an invisible coating - capable of repelling oil and water from fabrics: Scotchgard™. The famous incident is today hailed as one of the 21st-century's greatest accidental discoveries. As Sherman herself acknowledged: 

Just think of all the great inventions that have come through serendipity, such as Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin, and just noticing something no one conceived of before.

Housewifery for girls, science for boys

If she’d heeded her high school career advice, Sherman would never have invented a fabric protector that would generate some $300 million annually for 3M. When the career aptitude test for girls returned the role of Fifties housewife as her ideal vocation, Sherman insisted on taking the test for boys instead. The result better suited her talents: dentist or scientist. Sherman went on to study chemistry and mathematics at Minnesota’s Gustavus Adolphus College, becoming the first woman to graduate with a B.S. in those subjects in 1952 and later becoming a Distinguished Alumna.

A rare woman in the chemical world

Upon graduating Sherman landed a job at 3M. Her gender meant she was hired as a temporary worker since women were expected to leave to marry up and start a family. As a woman, Sherman was even later excluded from trials of her own invention. When Scotchgard™ was being tested in a textile mill, she was famously required to wait outside, since women weren’t allowed inside the mill.

A temporary job that lasted 4 decades

Yet Sherman overcame discrimination, powering her way up to 3M’s managerial ranks over 40 years, to become Technical Development Manager up to retirement in 1992. She was the first woman named to 3M's Carlton Society in 1974, which celebrates its best scientists. Together, Sherman and Smith were awarded 13 patents in the field of fluorochemical polymers and polymerization processes – to develop stain repellents for everything from clothing to linen and upholstery. 3M has since reformulated Scotchgard™ formulae, given concerns about the persistence of flurochemicals in the environment.

Look at the world with inventor’s eyes

Inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame, Sherman, who died in 2008, spent her retirement encouraging the next generations of inventors. As he said:

Anyone can become an inventor. As long as they keep an open and inquiring mind and never overlook the possible significance of an accident or apparent failure.

 She certainly instilled scientific curiosity in her own daughters: one followed in her footsteps at 3M and the other is a biologist and owner of an optics company.

Do you know any other major inventions created by women scientists? Share their names and discoveries with us at @womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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