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Stephanie Kwolek Recognized by the Lemelson-MIT Program

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 and boots.

"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 them."

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 equal now."

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 page.

Read more about Stephanie Kwolek.

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