KEVLAR DISCOVERER HONORED FOR LIFETIME
Stephanie Kwolek Recognized by the Lemelson-MIT
San Francisco, CA (April 22, 1999) — Retired
DuPont scientist Stephanie Kwolek has been named the recipient of
the fifth annual Lifetime Achievement Award by the Lemelson-MIT
Program. The Lemelson-MIT Program selected Kwolek because of her
innovations in the field of polymers, particularly those discoveries
that led to the development of the fiber that ultimately became
"Kevlar®," the high-strength fiber used in an extraordinary
range of consumer and industrial products.
Kwolek's research revolutionized the polymers industry in the 1960s,
when she developed the first liquid crystal polymer fiber, a new
type of synthetic material. She first began to experiment with various
polymers, and by 1964 prepared the first pure monomers that could
be used to synthesize poly-parabenzamide (PBA). Kwolek was interested
in the process behind this synthesis, which involved intermediates
that were ultra-sensitive to moisture and heat, and too easily underwent
self-polymerization and decomposition in reaction to water.
Her research into this process began with finding an acceptable
solvent and appropriate low-temperature polymerization conditions
for these intermediates. The result was a fluid and cloudy aramid
polymer solution that many researchers would have rejected; instead,
acting on instinct, Kwolek spun out the solution, resulting in synthetic
fibers that were astonishingly stiffer and stronger than any created
in the past.
DuPont's Pioneering Lab began work on finding a commercial version
of Kwolek's liquid crystal polymers, which resulted in the creation
of Kevlar®, a fiber five times stronger ounce-for-ounce than
steel, with about half the density of fiberglass.
Of the many applications of Kevlar, its best-known use is in bulletproof
vests; in this use alone Kwolek's discovery has saved thousands
of lives. The fiber has found its way into almost every industry,
from the automotive field to recreation to telecommunications. Kevlar®
can be found in products ranging from skis, suspension bridge cables
and brake pads, to boats, fishing line, transmission belts, tires
"Unquestionably, polymers have improved the lives of many
people," according to Kwolek. "It's very difficult to
turn around without bumping into at least three items that contain
Kwolek continued polymer research at DuPont until her retirement
in 1986, and continues to consult there part-time, where she serves
as a respected mentor to young scientists – especially women.
She is the recipient or co-recipient of 17 US patents including
one for the spinning method that made commercial aramid fibers feasible,
and five for the prototype from which Kevlar® was created.
"Kwolek's originality and determination overcame the high
barriers that women of her generation faced in creating successful
careers," said Rodney W. Nichols, President and CEO, New York
Academy of Sciences and a member of the Lemelson-MIT Awards Selection
Committee. "Stephanie Kwolek's lifetime achievements are also
a vivid reminder that research in chemistry has posed remarkable
opportunities for both intellectual adventure and practical benefits."
She was interested in pursuing a career in the sciences from a
young age, and was heavily influenced by her naturalist father and
working mother, at a time when most women did not work outside the
home. She graduated in 1946 with a BS in Chemistry from Margaret
Morrison Carnegie College (the women's college of what is now Carnegie
Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, after which she began her work
in DuPont's textile fibers division. According to Kwolek, her field
was so new at the time that there were not many courses taught in
polymer chemistry; in fact, nylon had only been invented four years
before she entered college.
"Although I've made many strides in my field, those were not
enlightened times for the recognition and advancement of women in
scientific research," says Kwolek. "While I was doing
work that was acknowledged to be on an equal level to that done
by men, it took fifteen years for me to get my first promotion,
and that was far too long to wait."
"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
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994
by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife,
Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through
outreach activities and annual awards including the world's largest
for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages
young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering,
technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded
by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives
at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire
College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance
and the University of Nevada, Reno.
Dr. Carver Mead, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied
Science at the California Institute of Technology, received the
1999 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Both Kwolek and Mead were honored
at a black-tie Lemelson-MIT Awards gala at the Exploratorium in
San Francisco on April 22, 1999. To read about former Lemelson-MIT
Award Winners, see our Winners' Circle
Read more about Stephanie Kwolek.
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