In the spirit of National Women’s History Month, I’d like to highlight an award-winning inventor, Stephanie Kwolek, whose contribution to safety, both in and out of the workplace, has prevented countless injuries and fatalities. Kwolek discovered, through her research, a material stronger than steel that would be used in cut-resistant gloves, bulletproof vests, and military helmet covers.
Born in 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, Kwolek earned a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, in 1946, from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (Carnegie-Mellon University). After graduation, she accepted a job at E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company as a chemist. The first four years of her work life were spent at the company’s site in Buffalo, New York! See Kwolek highlighted in the first row of this photo below showing the DuPont Lab Polymer Group in Buffalo, NY in 1948.
Kevlar® – Eureka!
Kwolek was eventually transferred to the newly built Textile Fibers Pioneering Research Laboratory at DuPont’s Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware. At this location, Kwolek researched and developed low temperature processes for the preparation of condensation polymers. This work made her the researcher of choice when the organization wanted a new high performance fiber developed in 1964.
It was during this research that Kwolek unexpectedly discovered the foundational technology for making a fiber that, when used as a composite, is five times stronger than steel. Kwolek, along with other scientists, turned the fiber into the commercial product known today as Kevlar®. Kevlar® is used today to make cut resistant and heat resistant gloves and sleeves.
Other products made with Kevlar® include military body armor, military helmets, motorcycle apparel, tactical vests, vehicle armor, fire fighter gear, and fire-resistant mattresses as well as many others.
Stephanie Kwolek’s Legacy
At the age of ninety, Kwolek died on June 18, 2014. She had worked at DuPont for forty years and had said during an interview,
“I was elated to have made this (DuPont™ Kevlar®) discovery because most people work a lifetime and they never do anything like this, something that saves human lives. I think the role of science is to improve human life in general and improve the world as well. When I reflect back upon my career, I am inspired by the fact that I was able to do something that was of benefit to mankind.”