Ask a soldier on the battlefield or a cop on the beat in the 21st century who Stephanie Kwolek is, and they’re likely to draw a blank. Ask if they appreciate their Kevlar vests, on the other hand, and that would be another story.
The “paramid synthetic fiber” polymer known as Kevlar that was concocted in a DuPont laboratory in 1965 by Kwolek, who just died Wednesday at 90 in Wilmington, Delaware, has since been used to replace steel in making vehicle and bicycle tires more puncture-proof, make racing sails more durable, and, most notably, saved countless lives on the battlefield and on law enforcement rounds through its use in Kevlar vests.
“We are all saddened at the passing of DuPont scientist Stephanie Kwolek, a creative and determined chemist and a true pioneer for women in science,” said DuPont’s CEO Ellen Kullman in a statement obtained by Bloomberg. “She leaves a wonderful legacy of thousands of lives saved and countless injuries prevented by products made possible by her discovery.”
Kwolek finally unearthed her discovery while working on the creation of new specialty textiles. The key was her synthesis of a special liquid crystalline compound that, when aramid polyamides were dissolved in it, could later be spun into synthetic fibers that resulted in tactical vests five times more impermeable than steel.
Also using Kevlar now: many of fiber-optics cables channeling conversations underground and underwater; protective athletic clothing; uber-strong ropes used to suspend bridges; and numerous more common consumer products such as drumheads, frying pans, and canoes.
Friends and former colleagues say it was a creation of Kevlar body armor, however, that marked Kwolek’s later years with profound pride.
Her friend, Rita Vasta, a fellow DuPont chemist, said Kwolek was tickled to learn that even police dogs were being fitted with Kevlar vests, according to the Mercury News.
Until very late in life, Kwolek lectured to children with the goal of encouraging as many females as possible to make science their livelihoods, said Vesta:
“Whenever she had an opportunity to speak to teen girls or little girls, she used all that time to talk about her career in science and say it was important for women to go into science.”
In 1994, Kwolek was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her Kevlar discovery. She was the fourth woman to be inducted to Hall of Fame, which now has a total of 113 inductees.
See an extensive video biography of Kwolek’s life from the Chemical Heritage Foundation below:
Kwolek and her invention also are cited by some in scientific circles who say that being an independent inventor isn’t the only way for our brightest minds to sow their intellectual seeds. According to a 2010 piece by the National Museum of American History and Smithsonian Institute, Kwolek is used as “a prime example” of this:
“Many R&D corporations fulfill the inventive dreams of their research staff and innovative people clearly thrive in institutional environments, with the major added advantage of the organizational backing necessary to make large-scale differences.”
Just this week, according to DuPont, the one-millionth Kevlar vest was sold. It’s also supplying military units worldwide with Kevlar helmets and other types of armor-plating now. Though no one seems to have put a sound number on the amount of casualties prevented by Kevlar through the years, battlefield commanders and front-line soldiers give one anecdotal testimonial after another. Here’s Col. Clifford Cloonan, via SF Gate, speaking from his experience leading the Bethesda, Maryland, hospital that trains physicians for war: “Many people are alive today because they were wearing their body armor and their Kevlar helmet.”
In her video interview, Kwolek was asked what it was like to be “a kind of mythical major female inventor.” Her answer:
“It really hasn’t made any difference for me except that it’s made me more busy. Sometimes I feel sort of embarrassed by the whole thing.”
Clearly, the work was for its worth and not the fame it might someday bring her.
[Image courtesy of DuPont]