Ms. Stephanie Kwolek, a Lady to Remember

    “I seem to see things that other people do not see.”  These are the words of Ms. Stephanie Kwolek, a DuPont chemist, who recently passed away on June 18, 2014 at the age of 90.  Ms. Kwolek’s pioneering spirit and enthusiasm for science, and in particular, chemistry, made her a champion as well as a mentor in her field.

    Stephanie_KwolekMs. Kwolek was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, her father passed away when she was ten years old, but her curiosity for the world around her was cultivated through her father’s love of nature, especially the woods and the fields.  From her mother, she inherited the love of sewing, and at one time entertained the idea of becoming a fashion designer.  However, her curiosity and attention to detail led her to pursue an education at Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie-Mellon University.  It was here that her interest in chemistry blossomed into what would turn out to be a career of outstanding research achievements and creativity.

    After Ms. Kwolek graduated from the university, her economic situation required her to postpone her much desired entrance into medical school and instead take a research position at DuPont. Consider that when she was beginning her career in the 1940s, the employment situation in America was not an easy one for women.  There were few women hired, and those who were offered employment were because men were at war or just returning from their service.  As men regained entry into the workforce, women scientists and especially those with a PhD worked for a couple of years and then pursued a teaching career. By comparison, Ms. Kwolek remained not only working at DuPont, but also, was so enthralled with her work that she decided to forgo her plans to enter medical school and eventually move to DuPont’s Pioneering Lab in Wilmington.  Even though at that time there were biases against women in her field, the group of male scientists she worked for encouraged her to use her ingenuity and to continue to flourish in her work.

    Consequently, Ms. Kwolek became engaged in several projects.  Remember that DuPont was the birthplace of the nylon fiber, and the goal of DuPont was now to search for polymers and lower-temperature condensation processes that would create a specialty fiber that would ultimately produce a lighter and more fuel-efficient tire.  This search would not only include the need for new polymers, but also, a new condensation process that would take place at lower temperatures – about 0 C to 40 C. By contrast, the melt polymerization process in preparing nylon was done at more than 200 C.  The desired lower-temperature polycondensation processes, which used fast reacting intermediates, would make it possible to create polymers that would not melt or only begin to decompose at temperatures of above 400 C. Ms. Kwolek’s research involved preparing intermediates, synthesizing aromatic polyamides of high molecular weight, dissolving the polyamides in solvents, and through much coaxing on her part the spinning of solutions into fibers.  By chance, Ms. Kwolek discovered that under certain conditions large numbers of the molecules of these rod-like polyamides lined up in parallel and formed liquid crystalline solutions.  The American Chemical Society says, “Most researchers would have rejected the solution because it was fluid and cloudy rather than viscous and clear, but Ms. Kwolek took a chance and spun the solution into fibers that were more strong and stiff than ever have been created.”  Ms. Kwolek’s 1965 discovery was the highlight of an already distinguished career. 

    Furthermore, this unprecedented 5x stronger than steel aramide fiber and material was registered as Kevlar and was commercially used in the early 1970s.  This miracle fiber is resistant to wear, corrosion and flames, and it is the primary ingredient of bullet proof vests and body armor which have become the attire of legions of soldiers and law enforcement officers.  So too, it is found in boats, airplanes, ropes, cables, tennis rackets, skis, and countless other applications.  Ms. Kwolek was particularly proud of its overall effectiveness as a safety measure. 

    As a result of her accomplishment and her 40 years of service at DuPont, Ms. Kwolek received numerous awards for her invention of the technology behind Kevlar fiber, including the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Medal of Technology.  She was also inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the Plastics Hall of Fame at the National Plastic Center and Museum, and the Perkin Medal was presented to her by the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry. Ms. Kwolek was an emerita member of ACS, joining in 1947. 

                A final consideration is that Ms. Kwolek’s success was due to her ability to envision something new, something better, and to persevere when there were hurdles that seemed insurmountable. She exemplified a mindset that believed that when goals were met, it was time to begin once again. Her strong work ethic coupled with her ability to think outside the box and envision ideas that could not have been seen by others were the factors that led to her discovery of Kevlar, a product used every day and that save lives.