1999 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
|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 othercharacteristics of a very stiff, strong fiberwhich 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.