February 9, 2009
As a child growing up in western Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, Stephanie Kwolek designed clothing for her dolls, stealing time on her mother’s sewing machine to create outfits that her parents couldn’t afford to buy during such hard times. “Both my parents were creative people. As a child, I thought that I might be a fashion designer. I spent an awful lot of time drawing various types of clothes and sewing,” she remembers.
While a career as a fashion designer was not in the cards, Kwolek learned to apply her creative impulse to more scientific pursuits. Majoring in chemistry with the ultimate goal of a medical degree, she took a research position with the DuPont Company an almost exclusively male dominated field in 1946. “The first year, the work was so interesting and it was so challenging,” she said in 2005. “I loved to solve problems, and it was a constant learning process. Each day there was something new, a new challenge, and I loved that. The problem was that I was so interested in chemistry and research that I totally forgot about medicine.”
In 1964, she was assigned to work toward developing a new generation of high-performance fibers. After much thought, experimentation, creative problem solving and simple hard work, Kwolek produced a lightweight fiber of incredible strength and durability, “five times stronger than steel on an equal weight basis” announced DuPont, which named the new material Kevlar.
In the years since, Kevlar has become a ubiquitous part of our lives in everything from sporting goods and bridge cables to aircraft and, most famously, helmets and bullet-proof armor.
Reflecting upon her achievement, Stephanie Kwolek says, “It makes me feel very good, because not many people have the opportunity to invent something, or to work on something, that has such significance, and particularly that is of benefit to mankind. I consider myself to be a very lucky person.” In 1994, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, only the fourth woman to be so honored.
Stephanie Kwolek on the web:
There is a small exhibit about Stephanie Kwolek and Kevlar at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.