Bullet-proof vests, fireproof boots, durable canoes, cut-resistant gloves. What do these items have in common? They often contain Kevlar, a chemical & flame-resistant polymer fiber discovered by WiSE Wednesday honoree Stephanie Kwolek that is pound-for-pound 5 times stronger than steel. Born in 1923 to Polish immigrants in Pennsylvania, she inherited a love of textiles from her mother and a passion for science from her naturalist father. She had aspirations of becoming a doctor, but upon graduating from the women’s college of Carnegie Mellon University, she didn’t have enough money for medical school, so she took a job as a chemist at the DuPont Company, where her assertiveness at her job interview helped her receive an on-the-spot offer.
In the 1960s, while searching for new materials for tires at DuPont, Kwolek came across a polymer solution with unusual properties. She had to persuade her colleagues to try spinning it into a fiber, but once they did, they realized she had discovered an incredibly strong yet lightweight material. This fiber, later known as Kevlar, has made DuPont billions of dollars, but Kwolek never profited directly from it because she signed over the patent. She did, however, receive numerous awards for her work. Her first award was a publication award from the American Chemical Society (ACS) for a paper describing “The Nylon Rope Trick,” a chemistry experiment still performed in classrooms around the world to demonstrate how nylon is produced. Further awards included the National Medal of Technology (1996), the Perkin Medal (1997), and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1994).
Falling in love with research, she dropped her plans to go to medical school and remained at DuPont until retiring in 1986. After retiring, she continued to serve as a mentor for girls in STEM, tutoring high schoolers in chemistry. She died in June 2014, the week that the millionth Kevlar bullet-proof vest was sold.
Photo credit: The News Journal/Jennifer Corbet, via AP