Lady Inventors: The Bulletproof Chemist

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: mans-womans
Courtesy: mans-womans

Lady Inventor Profile: Stephanie Louise Kwolek

  • Born: July 31, 1923
  • Inventor legacy: Inventor of poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, aka Kevlar
  • Historical context: In the late 1940s, Kwolek worked especially hard at DuPont for fear of losing her job in the wake of men returning back to their civilian employment following World War II.

When Stephanie L. Kwolek was a girl, she dreamed of sewing her way into fashion design, having inherited her milliner mother's knack with a needle and thread. By the time she graduated high school, her professional interests had transitioned away from clothing, and Kwolek received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Morrison Carnegie College with the intention of pursuing a career in medicine -- but chemistry quickly won out after she began working at DuPont.

Though she'd never see any of her clothing on a catwalk or become a doctor, Kwolek coincidentally did go on to save lives thanks to a textile-related innovation, in a way simultaneously achieving the ultimate goals of both past dream careers. As a DuPont chemist, Kwolek worked her way into the company's Delaware research lab where her specialty was developing extra-tough synthetic fibers at low temperatures. Then, in 1965, she discovered a new type of liquid crystalline polymers, which she later spun into astonishingly durable, butter-yellow fibers that would become known by the brand name Kevlar. At five times the strength and nearly half the density of steel, Kevlar has been most famously used in bulletproof vests, along with brake pads, fire-protective clothing, suspension bridge cables and myriad other applications, worth $5.6 billion in revenue in 2006 alone.

Holder of 17 U.S. patents, Kwolek became the fourth woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and also received the American Innovator Award in 1994; she also became an inductee of the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame and a National Medal of Technology recipient, on top of a host of other STEM honors. And as if her achievements aren't laudable enough, she also is known for mentoring other women in science.

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