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Stephanie L. Kwolek

Stephanie Kwolek

CHF Collections, Photograph by Harry Kalish

  • Born: July 31, 1923, New Kensington, Pennsylvania

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0168
Interview Date: March 21, 1998
Location: Wilmington, Delaware
Interviewer: Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent
No. of pages: 38
Sponsor: Society of Chemical Industry
Society of Chemical Industry

  Abstract of Interview

Stephanie Kwolek begins the interview with a discussion of her early career at DuPont. She joined DuPont in 1946, the same year she earned her B.S. in chemistry at Carnegie-Mellon University. Kwolek spent much of her time working on polymers, including aliphatic and aromatic polyamides. She discusses her level of independence in the laboratory, as well as her relationship with her supervisors. Kwolek began work with 1,4-B and was able to get a high molecular weight polymer. It was eventually discovered that the polymer spun beautifully and was quite strong. This polymer became Kevlar. Kwolek describes industry competition, the testing and scale-up of Kevlar, and the problems of confidentiality. She further discusses the relationship between Kevlar and Paul Flory's theory of liquid polymer crystals. Kwolek concludes the interview with comments on her love of writing, her decision to leave DuPont, and the future of polymer research.

  Education

1946 B.S., Chemistry, Carnegie-Mellon University

  Professional Experience

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1946 - 1959 Chemist

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1959 - 1967 Research Chemist

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1967 - 1974 Senior Research Chemist

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1974 - 1986 Research Assoicate

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1986 - present Consultant

National Academy of Sciences, Research Council

1986 - present Consultant

  Honors

1959 Publication Award, Delaware Section, American Chemical Society
1976 Howard N. Potts Medal, Franklin Institute of Philadelphia
1978 Award for Contributions to "Kevlar" (du Pont trademark for aramid fiber), American Society for Medals
1980 Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists
1980 Award for Creative Invention, American Chemical Society
1981 Honorary Doctor of Science Award, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
1983 Alumni Association Merit Award, Carnegie-Mellon University
1985 Engineering/Technology Award, Society of Plastics Engineers
1985 Polymer Processing Hall of Fame, University of Akron
1988 Harold DeWitt Smith Memorial Award, American Society of Testing Materials
1990 du Pont Honoree at the Bicentennial Celebration of the United States Patent and Copyright Laws
1995 Inducted member of Inventor's Hall of Fame
1997 Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Career at DuPont 1

Entering industry with a B.S. degree. Methods of polymerization. Aliphatic polyamides. Aromatic polyamides. Emphasis on long-term research. Hale Charch. Paul Morgan. Independence in laboratory.

Kevlar 4

Finding a solvent for 1,4-B. Spinning the polymer. Commercial opportunity in radial tires. Discovery of bullet-resistance. PVDT. Competition. Scaling up Kevlar. Secrecy.

Liquid Crystals 14

Paul Flory. Kevlar as theoretical discovery. Publishing results.

Scientific Process 17

Importance of clarity in writing. Necessity of honesty. Knowing when to abandon a line of research.

Conclusion 20

Decision to leave DuPont. Trend towards improving old products. Necessity of basic research. Future of innovation. Laboratory atmosphere. Colleagues. Choosing research projects. Current activities. Consulting.

Notes 35

Index 36

  About the Interviewer

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Université Paris X. She holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne, and is currently a fellow at the Dibner Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bensaude-Vincent is the author of numerous articles and books on the history of chemistry and physics, including Eloge du mixte: matériaux nouveaux et philosophie ancienne. In 1997, she received the Dexter Award for outstanding achievement in the history of chemistry.

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