Photograph by Harry Kalish.
In 1946 Stephanie Kwolek graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, the women’s college of the Carnegie Institute of Technology. She entered the workforce as a researcher at DuPont the same year. Her job interview there with W. Hale Charch had turned out to be a memorable one. Charch indicated that he would notify Kwolek within two weeks about DuPont’s decision, but Kwolek then asked if he could make a decision sooner since she had to reply shortly to another offer. Surprisingly, Charch called in his secretary and in Kwolek’s presence dictated an offer letter.
Kwolek initially planned to work just long enough to finance medical school, but her career took an uncharted turn: she found her research so interesting that she stayed at DuPont as a researcher for 40 years.
During her time with the company she developed one of DuPont’s most versatile products. In 1965 Kwolek was searching for a synthetic material that could withstand extreme conditions. She unexpectedly discovered that after being dissolved in a solvent, the aramid polyamides she was studying could be spun into fibers of unprecedented strength and stiffness. The material was five times stronger than steel while also remaining extremely lightweight, and it resisted rust and corrosion. After she patented the material in 1966, DuPont named it Kevlar. Kevlar has performed a variety of functions, including saving lives as lightweight body armor for police and the military, conveying messages across the ocean as a protector of undersea optical-fiber cable, and suspending bridges with super-strong ropes. Manufacturers also use Kevlar in countless other products from protective clothing for athletes and scientists to canoes, drumheads, and frying pans.
Kwolek has been honored with numerous awards. In 1978 the American Society for Medals awarded her contributions to the invention of Kevlar. She received the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists in 1980 as well as the Award for Creative Invention from the American Chemical Society. In 1995 she was the fourth woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She received the Perkin Medal from the Society of Chemical Industry (American Section) in 1997, and in 2003 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Read CHF’s interview with Stephanie Kwolek.
Stephanie Kwolek is one of eight women featured in The Catalyst Series: Women in Chemistry. View her video and related content.
Read more about Stephanie Kwolek’s life and contributions to the field of synthetic polymers.