Thousands of soldiers and police officers (as well as many others) would not be alive today had it not been for DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek, whose breakout discovery in 1965 was responsible for creating the “stronger than steel fiber” used in bullet proof vests and body armor across the globe. In fact, Kevlar (poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide) is now found in products from airplanes and spacesuits to industrial clothing and mining equipment, etc.
At the time, Kwolek was working on a project to develop strong, lightweight fibers to take the place of steel in automotive tires as a means of improving fuel economy, when she found a solvent that could dissolve long-chain polymers into a thinner and more watery solution than others. Although her colleagues were skeptic at the time, she was able to persuade one of her Charles Smullen to place the solution in a spinneret (which turns liquid polymers into fibers). The result was exceptionally tough fibers “several times stronger by weight than steel.” In fact, her friend and former co-researcher Rita Vasta recalled that DuPont “had to get new equipment to test the tensile strength.”
A pioneer in a field dominated by men, Stephanie Kwolek was the only woman to be presented with DuPont’s Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement (recognized as a “persistent experimentalist and role model”) and became only the 4th woman to be inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994. She was awarded both a “Creative Invention” Award and Perkins Medal by the American Chemical Society (1980 and 1997 respectively), and was also presented with the National Medal of Technology in 1996. and the National Medal of Technology; as well as added to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2003.
During her 40 years as a research scientist, Kwolek filed and received either 17 or 28 patents, although she did not profit from the invention of Kevlar, having signed its patent over to DuPont. She also spent her life encouraging fellow females to pursue careers in science, engineering and technologies as well as math.
Kwolek retired as a researcher from DuPont in 1986, although she stayed on as a consultant , and also served on both the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council in her later years. Born in Pittsburgh, PA on July 31, 1923, she died Wednesday June 18, 2014, at the age of 90 after a brief illness, and will be celebrated at a funeral mass on June 28th.