STEM History:

 Giuliana Tesoro  


Italian-born American Chemist, Inventor, and Professor

Birth/Death Dates

June 1, 1921 – September 29, 2002


Giuliana Tesoro was a renowned fabric innovator who developed flame-resistant fibers and found ways to prevent static in synthetic fibers and boost permanent-press properties for various textiles. Her training as an organic chemist enabled her to become a high-tech fabric pioneer, making fabrics more comfortable, practical, wearable, and safe. She earned more than 125 U.S. patents for surface active agents, chemical modification of fibers, and fire retardants. Her patents for improvements in fabric comfort, practicality, and flame resistance are most notable.

Tesoro devoted her career to breaking new ground in textiles. In 1944, she became a research chemist at Onyx Oil & Chemical. Later, she was hired by J.P. Stevens & Co., a top textile firm. She accepted a post as a senior chemist at the giant textile company Burlington Industries in 1969. Two years later, she took over as Burlington’s director of chemical research. Tesoro was granted more than two dozen patents in 1970 alone.

Companies offered the most open fields for Tesoro to push the boundaries in materials because they had the will and budgets to invest in research. However, Tesoro wanted to share her knowledge, so she eventually entered academia. She was a visiting professor and then an adjunct professor in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering from 1972 to 1982. She served as a research professor of polymer chemistry at Polytechnic University (now the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, as of 2015) from 1982 until her retirement in 1996.

Educational Background

Yale University (Ph.D. in organic chemistry)

Struggles this Innovator Overcame

Tesoro’s drive to succeed as a chemist helped her overcome many hardships. Born in Venice, Italy, during the center of Fascism’s rise in the region, she was denied entrance into any Italian university due to her Jewish identity because the nation’s fascist ideas forbade Jews from attending higher education. That did not stop Tesoro, who traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to obtain an x-ray technician diploma and eventually to the United States to further her studies in chemistry, eventually earning a Ph.D. from Yale University.

Problems this Innovator Solved

Before Tesoro invented flame-resistant fabrics, clothing was made from natural materials like cotton, which were highly flammable and were not suited for high-risk situations like firefighter emergencies or even everyday situations where fires could start. Tesoro developed flame-resistant fabrics to prevent potential harm in emergencies.

How this inventor changed the world (or at least their corner of it)

Tesoro made several advances in textile processing and organic compounds that improved textile performance for consumers and improved efficiency for manufacturing systems. Among her contributions were a better conceptualization of fiber chemical modification, permanent press properties, cross-linking agents, pharmaceutical synthesis, and, most notably, the creation of flame-resistant fibers. She received some of the highest honors awarded by the textile profession, including the 1978 Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Achievement Award.

Lasting changes from this inventor’s work or how they trailblazed

Tesoro’s advances in flame resistance helped shape today’s high-tech fabric industry, which has evolved to include the manufacture of equipment such as Kevlar vests and industrial worker uniforms.

It wasn’t easy for women to break through the barriers they faced to be successful in engineering and academia during Tesoro’s time. Her accomplishments and teachings pushed other women she worked with to see what was possible. As a professor, Tesoro served as an inspiration to her female students.