Kevlar Inventor Stephanie Kwolek

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Stephanie Kwolek was the inventor of Kevlar and the fourth woman named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. A dedicated, creative, and award-winning chemist, she worked for the DuPont company for more than 40 years.

Stephanie was born in 1923 and grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Her father loved the outdoors, and Stephanie took after her father in that regard. She majored in chemistry at Carnegie Mellon and got a job with DuPont in 1946. Her original intent was to become a doctor, but her work at DuPont fascinated her so much that she stayed.

She specialized in synthetic fibers. She won an award in 1959 for a paper describing what she called the Nylon Rope Trick, a method of producing nylon in a beaker at room temperature. (This idea still forms the basis of a common chemistry class experiment.)

A few years later, Kwolek and a team of scientists began searching for a fiber to use in tires. After extensive testing, Kwolek and her team came up with a fiber that was lightweight yet strong, five times stronger than steel by weight, in fact, and resistant to corrosion, wear, and flames. This new fiber was called Kevlar. (The full name is poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide.)

Today, Kevlar can be found in more than 200 products, including car tires, firefighter boots, cut-resistant gloves, ropes, cables (such as for suspension bridges), mobile phones, tennis racquets, airplanes, boats, skis, armored cars, and bullet-proof vests. For this discovery, Kwolek received DuPont’s Lavoisier Medal for technical achievement. She is the company’s only female recipient of that award.

Kwolek won other awards as well in her long career in chemistry, including the National Medal of Technology. She joined National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003. The U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry, every two years, hands out a Stephanie L. Kwolek Award for excellence in chemistry.

Kwolek retired in 1986 and tutored high school students in chemmistry. She died in 2014.

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