Science and Education
Place of Birth: New Kennington, Pennyslvania
Stephanie Louise Kwolek
Kwolek was a Polish American chemist who worked at DuPont for more than forty years. During this time, she invented a synthetic fiber known as polyparaphenylene terephthalamide—better known as Kevlar. She is the only woman to have been awarded DuPont’s Lavoisier Medal for her achievements.
She completed her Bachelor of Science in chemistry at the Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University in 1946, and planned to continue on to medical school. She accepted a position at DuPont’s Buffalo (New York) facility to save money to continue her education toward a medical career, but found her work at DuPont fascinating and decided to stay to continue polymer research.
The work that led to the invention of Kevlar began in 1964, when expectation of a gasoline shortage sparked interest in producing a strong and lightweight fiber for use in tire production. By 1971 modern Kevlar was introduced.
Kwolek was not directly involved in the development of various applications for Kevlar and did not profit from the invention, as she had signed the patent over to DuPont. Kevlar’s applications have included tennis rackets, skis, cables, tires, and bulletproof vests as well as in the production of bomb-proof materials and bridge reinforcements.
She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995, only the fourth woman to be so honored, and has won a number of other awards for her work in polymer chemistry—including the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists in 1980, an Award for Creative Invention from the American Chemical Society, and the Perkin Medal from the American Chemical Society. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003. The Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK grants a biennial award to foreign materials chemists named in Kwolek’s honor.