What do police officers and yogis (or the entire population of LA causally wearing “athleisure”) have in common? They all have scientist Stephanie Kwolek to thank. She invented Kevlar and without her, we all would be wearing less comfortable clothes, at the very least.
Stephanie Louise Kwolek was destined for great things, even though she wasn’t aware of it. She was born near Pittsburgh to Polish parents. They had immigrated to the United States where her father was a nature enthusiast and her mother worked as a seamstress. Influenced by her mother’s work, Stephanie wanted to be a fashion designer. She spent her childhood drawing and coming up with designs. Her father’s interest in nature also had an impact on her, they collected and pressed natural art.
To even her surprise, Stephanie earned a chemistry degree from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, which is now Carnegie Mellon University. Her plan was to become a doctor. She applied to the Dupont Company to earn money to attend medical school. The job was meant to be short term, but she ended up staying for almost fifty years! She was offered the job on the spot due to her bold nature — she asked the interviewer, W. Hale Charch, the research director at Dupont, if he could let her know sooner than a few weeks if she would receive a further step in the interview process because someone else was waiting to hire her. He gave her the position right then.
And Then She Told Them She Invented Kevlar
Kwolek was fascinated by the work she found herself doing. One of her projects as a chemist consisted of creating synthetic fibers to replace the steel found in tires. She dissolved fibers known as “polyamides” into a liquid form and used a spinneret to spin that liquid into a different fiber. It was thin, milky, and resembled something like Spiderman’s webbing. Only, it was better, fireproof, and stronger than steel. This product became Kevlar, one of DuPont’s billion-dollar inventions. Kevlar is used in countless products from sneakers, to some musical instruments, and even bulletproof vests. This invention earned Kwolek a Lavoisier Medal. She is the only woman to have won the DuPont Award. She did, however, sign away her patent to the company.
When Stephanie Kwolek did retire from DuPont, she remained a consultant for the company and the National Academy of Sciences. She tutored high school students in chemistry and encouraged parents to talk to their daughters about careers in sciences.
Kwolek died in 2014 at age 90. But, before she did, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, awarded the National Medal of Honor, the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for her work.