While many folks were watching the World Cup soccer games this past weekend in Brazil, I learned of the death of a very nice lady and a pioneering female chemist – Stephanie Kwolek. Many of my friends didn’t recognize Kwolek’s name, but most had heard of Kevlar – the flexible, tougher than steel fibers used to create life-saving body armor for law enforcement and the military along with a host of other products. Ms. Kwolek invented Kevlar in 1965 while working with DuPont.
I had the honor of meeting Ms. Kwolek in August 2005 at a board of directors’ installation program of the Society of Women Engineers. She was included as a distinguished guest on the program. Kwolek had been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003. Unable to attend that event, she would be presented with the medallion from her Hall of Fame induction at this program in Wilmington, DE, also world headquarters for DuPont, her employer of 40 years.
During our short conversation, I was able to ask her two probing questions. I was curious if she had experienced discrimination as a female at any point in her career? She didn’t recall any particular situation that was negative, however, during the first few weeks of employment at DuPont, there were a few stares and inquiries about where she was going when she showed up for work each morning. Shortly thereafter, she came and went with no questions being asked as she proceeded to her lab.
In 1965, Kwolek devised a liquid crystal solution that could be cold-spun. Nearly half a century later, her discovery and legacy have endured through a variety of goods ranging from bulletproof vests, tires, sports rackets and Smartphones.
My next question was whether or not any members of her management team had attempted to take credit for her research work and this important ground-breaking discovery? According to Kwolek, during the time she was conducting her polymer research that led to the discovery of Kevlar, her manager was pursuing his graduate degree. All of her research had to be written in a special lab book, and periodically, her manager would review and sign-off on her work and that of others who worked for him. Therefore, he was a very busy person, had few questions, and didn’t get in her way at all.
My take away from our short discussion was how vivid her memory was of her work at DuPont. She spoke as if it was just last week that she was still at the company working in her research lab. Her memory of the workplace was vivid, and it was difficult not to notice how enthusiastic she was to share information about the types of project that she worked on.
I kept thinking to myself as she was talking that I wished that I could have had this type of experience with all of the organizations that I’ve worked for. However, I am very grateful for those firms that not only challenged me, but allowed me the opportunity to thrive and grow.
Kwolek didn’t stand taller than 4-feet, 11-inches; however, her knowledge and research left a giant impact on the world. “When you think about what she has done, it’s incredible. There’s literally thousands and thousands of people alive because of her,” said Ron McBride, former manager of the Kevlar Survivors’ Club, a not-for-profit partnership between DuPont and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The group has documented 3,200 lives saved through use of Kevlar in body armor.
Kwolek was the recipient of other awards including the ACS Creative Invention (1980), National Inventors Hall of Fame (1995), National Medal of Technology (1996), Perkin Medal from the American Chemical Society (1997), Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1999) and most recently, the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women in March 2014. [Ref 2]
Her ground-breaking work did not keep her from serving as a mentor to other female scientists throughout her career. When her time and schedule permitted, she never hesitated to participate in programs that were designed to introduce children and youth to science and engineering.
Stephanie Kwolek was 90 years old when she died in Wilmington, DE on Wednesday, June 18, 2014. A Catholic mass is planned to celebrate her life on June 28, 2014.
1. Kevlar Inventor Stephanie Kwolek Dead at 90, Alyssa Newcomb, Good Morning America, June 21, 2014,
2. Stephanie Kwolek: One Who Aspired, Advanced, and Achieved, Society of Women Engineers Magazine, Spring 2014