Women in IP: The Story Behind Scotchgard’s Patent Success

Note: This is the first in GIPC’s series of “Women In IP” features in recognition of March as Women’s History Month.

In 1947, Patsy Sherman received the results of her high school career aptitude test: most suited to the role of a housewife. Sherman, nurturing an intense interest in research and science, demanded to take the boys’ test. This time, the results listed dentistry or science as potential careers.

5 years later, she was a research chemist at 3M Company. She began in the field of fluorochemicals. Her work centered on the development of a new kind of rubber for jet aircraft fuel lines.

And yet, Sherman would discover an unexpected application for fluorochemicals.

The discovery began when an assistant accidently spilled one of Sherman’s experimental fluorochemical rubber solutions, and the spill splashed onto that assistant’s white canvas sneakers. Frustration quickly turned into fascination as the lab team made countless failed attempts to remove the spill. The spill repelled water, oil, and other liquids, and no solvents would wash it away.

So, Sherman and the lab team approached the spill with a new perspective. They moved their intention from removing the spill to using the spill – and the fluorochemicals at its foundation – as a new protective solution to prevent future spills.

Soon, Sherman and her lab team had developed the recipe for popular fabric stain repellent and material protector Scotchgard. Tweaks to the original recipe would introduce a Scotchgard carpet treatment recipe and a car upholstery cleaner recipe, among other derivations. Today, there are nearly 40 Scotchgard products.

Sherman, in partnership with lab mate Samuel Smith, received 13 patents for her various inventions.

Still, for Sherman, taking these inventions from lab to market was no easy task.

At the time, there were very few female chemists and very few women in corporate roles. During materials testing of the Scotchgard suite of products at a textile mill, Sherman was forced to wait outside; women were not allowed in the mill. Additionally, Sherman’s position at 3M was considered only temporary, as it was assumed she would marry, have children, and quit working.

Sherman encountered – and fought hard to shatter – gender-based discrimination throughout her career.

She climbed the corporate ladder to become 3M’s manager of technical development and she was the first woman inducted into 3M’s prestigious Carlton Society, which recognizes the company’s top scientists.

Sherman continued to collect accolades, becoming a Distinguished Alumni Citation Recipient for Scientific Research, maintaining membership in the American Chemical Society for over 50 years, and receiving the Joseph M. Biedenbach Distinguished Service Award. She was also named to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame and then to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we remember Patsy Sherman as a powerful inventor.

Patsy Sherman inspires us to harness the power of innovation, so that we too may transform accident into opportunity.

Who knows what the next spill might bring?

Courtney Paul is the associate manager of communications for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Intellectual Property Center.

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