Latest News
Web Date: June 23, 2014

Stephanie Kwolek Dies At 90

Obituary: DuPont chemist’s research led to the development of super-tough Kevlar fiber
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Women in Chemistry
News Channels: Materials SCENE
Keywords: obituaries, DuPont, Kwolek, Kevlar
Kwolek’s work with liquid crystal polymers paved the way for the development of Kevlar.
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation
Stephanie Kwolek.
Kwolek’s work with liquid crystal polymers paved the way for the development of Kevlar.
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation

Stephanie L. Kwolek, the DuPont chemist whose synthesis of the first liquid crystal polymer led to the development of Kevlar, the light, superstrong aramid fiber used in bulletproof vests, body armor, tires, and countless types of sports equipment, died in Wilmington, Del., on June 18. She was 90 years old.

“We are all saddened at the passing of DuPont scientist Stephanie Kwolek, a creative and determined chemist and a true pioneer for women in science,” DuPont Chief Executive Officer Ellen J. Kullman said in a statement. “She leaves a wonderful legacy of thousands of lives saved and countless injuries prevented by products made possible by her discovery.”

Early in her career, Kwolek joined the search for polymers and lower-temperature condensation processes needed to produce specialty fibers, including those that could be used in lighter, more fuel-efficient tires. Researchers struggled to develop a stiffer and tougher nylon-related fiber until 1965, when Kwolek experimented with polyamide molecules and synthesized a liquid crystal solution that could be cold-spun into fibers of unprecedented strength and stiffness. That research led to the introduction of Kevlar in the early 1970s.

Born to Polish immigrant parents in New Kensington, Pa., Kwolek became enthralled with science while exploring nature with her naturalist father, who died when she was just 10 years old. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh in 1946. She then joined DuPont as a laboratory chemist in Buffalo, N.Y., intending to stay with the company just long enough to save money to allow her to attend medical school. However, she found her work to be so interesting that she decided to remain with the company, eventually heading polymer research at DuPont’s Pioneering Lab. She retired in 1986.

Kwolek received the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, the Perkin Medal in 1997, and the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton in 1996. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003. Kwolek was an emerita member of ACS, joining in 1947.

Kwolek leaves no survivors.

A passionate and creative scientist, Kwolek recalls her rich career at DuPont.
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Trean Korbelak Blumenthal (Wed Jun 25 11:08:32 EDT 2014)
Thank you for publishing this interesting article. As a female chemist, I appreciate her contribution and had never had occasion to hear about it before.
Too bad, I would have liked to thank her. It is sad that she "leaves no survivors" when her discovery allowed so many survivors....
So often, women wind up alone with their work in science.
Her survivors may not be family, but colleagues and those who remember her.
Robert Pellenbarg (Sun Jun 29 13:22:34 EDT 2014)
The writer does a serious disservice to the 'inventer' of Kevlar. Looking closely at the dates in the article, one notices that Ms Kwolek joined DuPont in 1946 (?), but 'invented' Kevlar in 1965(?). The sad situation associated with these dates is that apparently Ms Kwolek received NO PROMOTIONS in the ~20 years she had been at DuPont prior to the Kevlar breakthrough. Why this might have been the case will never be revealed; except for the Kevlar fluke, she might have faded away, eventually retiring from DuPont in relative obscurity. Perhaps she lacked a mentor, perhaps women chemists were just tolerated at DuPont (and myriad other institutions!!!) in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. The point to my comment is that the reader would benefit from a few more facts about her career in addition to the clear success associated with the Kevlar story. Detail, please!!!!
Susan Ainsworth  (Thu Jul 03 11:04:42 EDT 2014)
Dear Dr. Pellenbarg,

Thank you for your comment. I regret that C&EN news stories must be kept very brief. Because I knew that I did not have the space to provide details about the interesting areas you mention in your comment, I provided a link to a video and links to related stories. I think that these resources will provide some answers to the questions you asked.

For example, the story about Kwolek receiving the lifetime achievement award (see link above), provides this information: "Although I've made many strides in my field, those were not enlightened times for the recognition and advancement of women in scientific research. While I was doing research that was acknowledged to be on an equal level to that done by men, it took 15 years for me to get my first promotion, and that was far too long to wait."
Leave A Comment