Biographical / Historical
Stephanie L. Kwolek was born in 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. She earned a bachelors degree in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, now known as Carnegie Mellon University, in 1946. Upon graduating 1946, Kwolek joined the DuPont Company in Buffalo, New York, where she worked in the Textile Fibers Pioneering Research Laboratory. In the laboratory she researched and developed new synthetic fibers. Kwolek's specialty at DuPont was low-temperature polymerization. She discovered the first liquid crystal polymers, which created an entire branch of research and invention. In 1964, Kwolek began searching for new high-performance chemical compounds. By 1965, she had discovered a compound that, when spun into fiber, was very strong and stiff. She found that the rigidness of this fiber nearly doubled when exposed to heat. The final product resulted in Kevlar (US Patent 3,819,587; RE 30,352) a high-performance aramid fiber used in bullet-resistant vests, crash helmets, boat shells, and radial tires.
Kevlar provides low stretch or elongation, improved cut resistance, better heat resistance, increased strength, reduced weight, and better impact resistance. Kwolek received a patent for Kevlar in 1971. During her forty year career, Kwolek received twenty-eight patents. She retired from DuPont in 1986.
Kwolek has received various awards for her invention, including the American Society of Metals Award in 1978, and both the American Chemical Society Creative Invention Award and the American Institute of Chemists Chemical Pioneer Ward in 1980. In July of 1995, Kwolek was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1996 she received the National Medal of Technology, and in 1997 the Perkin Medal was presented by the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry to Kwolek. Both honors are rarely awarded to women. Kwolek received the 1999 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for her innovations in the polymers industry, most notably her invention of Kevlar®.