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Stephanie Kwolek
1999 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

Stephanie Kwolek
Photo by Michael Branscom
 

Stephanie Kwolek graduated college in 1946 with a degree in chemistry and dreams of becoming a doctor. Unable to afford medical school at the time, Kwolek went to work as a chemist at Dupont's research facility instead, ultimately saving more lives than may have been possible even if she had become a doctor.

Kwolek received the 1999 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for her innovations in the polymers industry, most notably her invention of Kevlar®, the high-strength fiber that is the life-saving material of bulletproof vests. Kwolek has also contributed to the development of such synthetics as Lycra®, Spandex®, Nomex® and Kapton®.

While working at DuPont's Pioneering Research Laboratory in 1964, Kwolek was given the task of creating a high-performance fiber for car tires to reduce gas consumption. Experimenting with two aromatic polymers, Kwolek formed a fluid, cloudy solution of liquid crystals that seemed dubious to many. She proceeded to test its properties and was denied at first, for fear of damaging the spinneret. After much persistence, it was spun, showing fibers aligned parallel to each other—characteristics of a very stiff, strong fiber—which would evolve as Kevlar®. This lightweight and heat-resistant fiber has found its way into a myriad of consumer and industrial products, including helmets, tires, brake pads, tennis rackets, fiber-optic cables and more.

A native of New Kensignton, PA, Kwolek graduated in 1946 with a B.S. in Chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College (Carnegie Mellon University today), during a time when women were encouraged to be homemakers instead of going to school. Inspired and supported by her parents to pursue this route, Kwolek comments, "I recommend that parents encourage their daughters to pursue scientific careers, if they are so inclined, in the same way they would their sons. The opportunities for both sexes are far more equal now." Though she faced gender discrimination as she rose to the top, she paved the way for other aspiring female scientists and now serves as a mentor to many.

A member of the American Chemical Society, Kwolek has received three honorary degrees, plus many awards and distinctions including the USPTO's American Innovator Award (1995), the Perkin Medal (1997) and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1995). Kwolek retired from DuPont in 1986 with 17 U.S. patents.

Web Links:
Dupont
Inventing Modern America

 

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Stephanie Kwolek
Photo by Michael Branscom
 
MIT