Stephanie Kwolek Biography


Birthday: July 31, 1923 (Leo)

Born In: New Kensington, Pennsylvania, United States

Stephanie Louise Kwolek was an American chemist whose research work led to the development of the synthetic fiber, Kevlar, a material of exceptional strength best known for its use in bulletproof vests. The material she created after years of tireless work in the laboratories is far stronger and lighter than steel, and has been used in car tires, boots for firefighters, cut-resistant gloves, fiber-optic cables, fire-resistant mattresses, and armored limousines. Regarded a true pioneer for women in science, she became the fourth woman to be added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995. The daughter of a naturalist, she developed an early interest in science due to the influence of her father. Even though her father died when she was young, her love for science remained strong and she went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University. She then found a job with DuPont's New York facility and worked there for over 40 years over the course of which she made numerous contributions to research in polymer chemistry. During her career with the company, she invented Kevlar when her team was searching for a lightweight yet strong fiber to be used in tires. Her discovery proved very valuable for the company and generated several billion dollars of revenue for DuPont though she personally did not get any direct financial benefits.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Stephanie Louise Kwolek

Died At Age: 90

Born Country: United States

Chemists Inventors

Died on: June 18, 2014

place of death: Wilmington, Delaware, United States

U.S. State: Pennsylvania

discoveries/inventions: Kevlar

More Facts

education: Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering, Margaret Morrison Carnegie College

awards: 1996 - National Medal of Technology and Innovation
1997 - Perkin Medal

Childhood & Early Life
Stephanie Kwolek was born on July 31, 1923, in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, United States, to Polish immigrant parents. Her father, John Kwolek, was a naturalist by avocation who took his daughter on numerous trips exploring the natural world. Her mother Nellie was a fashion-conscious woman.
Her father died when she was just 10 years old. But the love for science she inherited from him would remain with her for life.
She earned a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University in 1946. Her initial plan was to become a doctor. She hoped to find a chemistry-related job and earn enough money to attend medical school.
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Shortly after her graduation, Hale Charch offered her a position at DuPont's Buffalo, New York, facility. In the 1940s, a huge number of men were overseas because of the World War II and employers were more open towards recruiting women.
Stephanie Kwolek began her career at DuPont in 1946. Initially she planned on working there only temporarily as she had plans to attend medical school. But with time she found the job very interesting and ditched her plans of becoming a doctor, choosing to continue with her current career path.
In the 1960s, Kwolek was made part of a team at DuPont’s research laboratory in Wilmington that was trying to develop a lightweight yet strong fiber to be used in tires. This work involved manipulating strings of carbon-based molecules to produce larger molecules known as polymers, and she was specifically working with poly-p-phenylene terephthalate and polybenzamide.
She was struggling with the polymers she was working with and was not able to find the results she was expecting. Conventional polymer solutions are usually clear or translucent but the one she created looked like a dispersion. However, further tests on the solution produced amazing results. The fibers spun from these polymers displayed unusual stiffness.
The fibers were tested in 1965 and were found to be five times as strong as steel of equal weight and resistant to fire. Her supervisor at DuPont recognized the commercial potential of the newly developed fiber and it was introduced in the market as Kevlar in early 1970s. Kwolek, however, was not very involved in developing practical applications of Kevlar.
She spent her entire career with DuPont and retired as a research associate in 1986. During her later years she served on both the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences.
Major Work
Stephanie Louise Kwolek is best known for her work which led to the development of Kevlar, a para-aramid synthetic fiber, a highly versatile material that is used in more than 200 applications. The material which is even stronger than steel is used for the manufacture of bullet-proof vests, car tires, fire fighter boots, hockey sticks, bicycle tires and racing sails.
Awards & Achievements
Kwolek received the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists in 1980. The same year, she also received an Award for Creative Invention from the American Chemical Society.
She became the fourth woman to be added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 1995, she was awarded the DuPont company’s Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement as a "Persistent experimentalist and role model whose discovery of liquid crystalline polyamides led to Kevlar aramid fibers."
In 2003, she was added to the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Personal Life & Legacy
Stephanie Kwolek never married, she dedicated her entire life to her profession.
She lived a long and fruitful life and died on June 18, 2014, at the age of 90.
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