Stephanie Kwolek: The Lady Who Stopped Bullets

Stephanie Kwolek: The Lady Who Stopped Bullets
Updated date:
Apr 25, 2022

Table of Contents

“I would take a bullet for you.”

Others would roll their eyes, but others would be giddy hearing their loved ones’ affirmation of love. It sounds cheesy, but it can be true. A well-known idiom could mean figuratively or literally. What if we make this idiom into reality?

Taking a bullet could mean two things:

  1. To accept or put oneself in the way to safeguard someone’s personality, values, and interests.

Perfect examples are parents who would protect their children away from harm figuratively.

  1. To voluntarily take a bullet that was meant for someone else.

Another example is the US Secret Service, which has dedicated its life literally to ensuring the safety of the First Family and visiting international leaders.

They play a crucial role in protecting the United States while maintaining the security of US elections by protecting candidates and nominees and assuring the safety of significant buildings and large national-level events.

security of US elections by protecting candidates and nominees

The United States Secret Service’s role is the reality of taking a bullet for you in a literal sense. But is that all there is, be shot and die? There is another way to manifest yourself like a cat’s nine lives. How? There will be that inventor who would come up with a hundred uses, not just for stopping bullets.

You can extend your life through science and invention. Did you know about the lady who helped stop bullets, literally? Stephanie Kwolek was the inventor behind this groundbreaking idea. We celebrate all innovations that humankind has benefitted from.

Early Life

Family

Stephanie Louise Kwolek

During the Roaring ’20s, Stephanie Louise Kwolek was born on July 31, 1923, in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. And you might be wondering, where is Stephanie Kwolek from? Stephanie Kwolek’s family is from Poland, and she is Polish-American.

Growing up with Polish immigrant parents who have a mind for creation and discovery, it is no doubt that she would, later on, indulge in this path.

Stephanie’s father, John Kwolek, was an amateur naturalist. Having him to look up to, she would spend many hours with him exploring the woods and fields surrounding her house, filling scrapbooks with leaves, wildflowers, seeds, grasses, and descriptive information. She was ten when he passed away. 

Stephanie’s mother, Nellie Zajdel Kwolek, was a seamstress. She gained a passion for materials and sewing from her mother. She had considered becoming a fashion designer, but her mother advised her that she would most likely starve in that industry since she was such a perfectionist.

What inspired Stephanie Kwolek? It took time to go after what she wanted to pursue. But later on, being inspired by her parents, she got interested in education, chemistry, and medicine and decided to become a doctor.

Education

In 1946, Stephanie Kwolek earned a Bachelor's degree with a Major in Chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University.

Dupont

Stephanie then began her career at DuPont in 1946 as a researcher. DuPont, also known as DuPont de Nemours, Inc., is an American company founded on August 31, 2017, through the merger of Dow Chemical and EI du Pont de Nemours and Company, with the further merger spinoffs of Dow Inc. and Corteva.

Before the spinoffs, it was the largest chemical corporation globally in terms of revenue. According to reports, the transaction is worth an estimated $130 billion. Since the founding of the original DuPont in 1802, DuPont has been headquartered in Wilmington. Delaware is the state where it is incorporated.

Stephanie Kwolek initially planned on working there only temporarily to save money to attend medical school. She discovered the job fascinating, and the picture of becoming a doctor changed.

Stephanie abandoned her plans of being a doctor and chose to continue with her current career path. DuPont supported her choice and opened opportunities for her.

Carnegie Mellon University Notable Alumni

Early Career

First Job Venures

Everybody began with zero and needed a mentor. Who is Stephanie Kwolek's mentor? In 1946, Stephanie Kwolek met a future mentor, William Hale Charch. William Charch offered Kwolek a position at DuPont's Buffalo, New York, facility. 

Title or higher job positions were not very important to her. She was happy as long as she was given the room, space, and resources to advance her research. Kwolek only intended to work for DuPont to raise money for medical school temporarily.

She decided to stay with DuPont and moved to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1950 after becoming interested in polymer-chemistry work.

When she was in her 40s, DuPont asked her to scout for the next generation of fibers that could withstand extreme conditions. As a chemical company, Dupont was looking for a petroleum-based polymer fiber that would be lighter and more durable than steel in radial tires.

What are petroleum-based polymers, you might wonder? This work involved manipulating strings of carbon-based molecules to produce larger molecules known as polymers.

There were openings in the company because a lot of men were away fighting in the war. Dupont had only launched nylon soon before World War II, and the nylon industry immediately grew and flowered into a wide range of textile uses. But how was nylon used in WW2?

At the same time, the relentless grind of the Second World War helped to underline the importance of lightweight, wearing armor for troops and equipment protection.

As the only armor material available, steel's heavyweight precluded its use in tanks. Even at that time, steel could be penetrated with dedicated weapons.

Soldiers involved in the conflict were obliged to go without body armor. During this time, war raged overseas due to the lack of materials strong enough to withstand bullets (even from infantry rifles) but light enough to be worn by soldiers. The goal is to develop a lightweight and strong fiber for tires.

Scientists were afraid Kwolek's solution would break the spinneret (the machine that spins the liquid polyamide into fibers like a spinning wheel making thread). However, with a little convincing, they agreed to use it. Unlike steel, the material she had made was stiff and fire-resistant. 

What followed was amazing.

Immediately following her discovery, management at DuPont assigned a whole group of people to work on different aspects of the material. The American Chemical Society (ACS) gave her the first of many awards in 1959.

Kevlar

What she was working on produced excellent results! The fibers spun from these polymers displayed unusual stiffness, later called Aramid fibers.

Kevlar

Stephanie Kwolek is notable for her work with aramids, or "aromatic polyamides," a polymer that can be produced into strong, stiff, and flame-resistant fibers in the 1950s and 1960s. Paul W. Morgan facilitated her aramid research.

He is a research fellow who predicted that the aramids would form stiff fibers because they contain bulky benzene (or "aromatic") rings in their molecular chains, but that they should be prepared from solution since they melt only at high temperatures.

Stephanie identified the solvents and polymerization conditions adequate for generating poly-m-phenylene isophthalamide and a substance DuPont introduced in 1961 under the brand name Nomex as a flame-resistant fiber.

She subsequently expanded her research to include poly-p-benzamide and poly-p-phenylene terephthalamide, which she discovered had very regular rodlike molecular configurations in solution.

Fibers of extraordinary stiffness and tensile strength were spun from these two "liquid crystal polymers" (the first-ever prepared).

With that, Kevlar was born. Kevlar was created and commercialized with the revolutionary polymer Poly-p-phenylene terephthalamide, developed by Kwolek.

What is Kevlar?

Kevlar (para-aramid) is a heat-resistant and robust synthetic fiber linked to Nomex and Technora. It is often spun into ropes or fabric sheets that may be utilized as a component in composite materials.

A gas shortage in 1964 led Kwolek's group to look for a lightweight, yet strong material to replace the steel used in tires. Stephanie Kwolek developed the high-strength material at DuPont in 1965, and it was initially utilized commercially in the early 1970s replacing steel in racing tires. 

What is Kevlar?

This type of hazy solution was generally discarded. On the other hand, Stephanie convinced technician Charles Smullen, who ran the spinneret, to put her solution to the test. She was astounded to discover that the newfound fiber did not break like nylon.

Kevlar was not only stronger than nylon, but it was five times stronger by weight than steel. Her supervisor and the laboratory director recognized the importance of her finding, and a new field of polymer chemistry formed fast.

Modern Kevlar was launched in 1971. Stephanie discovered that heat-treating the fibers may make them substantially stronger. Why is Kevlar so strong? Kevlar's exceptional strength is due to the firmly orientated polymer molecules, which are structured like rods or matchsticks.

Stephanie Kwolek proceeded to explore thermotropic Kevlar derivatives with aliphatic and chlorine groups. What is Kevlar being used for?

Stephanie Kwolek and others of the DuPont group that developed Kevlar. Left to right: Kwolek, Herbert Blades, Paul W. Morgan, and Joseph L. Rivers Jr.
Stephanie Kwolek and others of the DuPont group that developed Kevlar. Left to right: Kwolek, Herbert Blades, Paul W. Morgan, and Joseph L. Rivers Jr.

Applications of Kevlar

With her frail body fast approaching, Kwolek was not actively involved in researching practical uses of Kevlar. When senior DuPont executives learned of the discovery, "they immediately assigned a whole group to work on different aspects," she said in a News Journal newspaper reposted by reuters.com.

Kwolek, who retained her bright intellect, continued her chemical research on Kevlar derivatives for DuPont.Due to her signing over the Kevlar patent to DuPont, she did not profit from the company's products.

Tennis rackets, skis, parachute lines, boats, aircraft, ropes, cables, and bullet-proof jackets are just a few of the applications for Kevlar.

Kevlar is now used in more than 200 products to this date. It has been utilized in the manufacture of automobile tires, firefighter boots, hockey sticks, cut-resistant gloves, and armored vehicles.

It has also been employed in constructing protective building materials such as bomb-proof materials, natural disaster safe rooms, and bridge reinforcements.

And the most well-known of all is the bulletproof vests called Kevlar. The one-millionth bullet-resistant vest constructed of Kevlar was sold during the week of Kwolek's death. Kevlar is also utilized to make cellular phones, such as Motorola's Droid RAZR, which features a Kevlar unibody.

Legacy

What Kwolek discovered proved to be very valuable for DuPont and everyone else. Although she never gained any financial benefit directly from the discovery, the discovery generated many billions of dollars in revenue for DuPont, her employer at the time.

Why is Stephanie Kwolek important? Kwolek is most proud and happy that Kevlar has gone on to save lives as lightweight body armor for police and the military. According to Kwolek, the best application of her inventions is saving lives.

Legacy

Her career at DuPont company spanned more than 40 years. What was Stephanie Kwolek famous for, and what did Stephanie Kwolek discover?

She is renowned for the invention of Kevlar and pioneered the first synthetic fiber of exceptional strength and stiffness, poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide. Literally, becoming the lady who stopped bullets.

Awards and Honors

Discovering a chemical breakthrough, her hard work in polymer chemistry, which is more than beneficial to the whole world, must be recognized. What awards did Stephanie Kwolek win?

Royal Society of Chemistry - Stephanie L Kwolek Award (2014)

Royal Society of Chemistry - Stephanie L Kwolek Award (2014)

In 2014, a biannual award is given by the  Royal Society of Chemistry in honor of a scientist outside the UK who has contributed significantly to the field of materials chemistry. Stephanie Kwolek is also featured as one of the Royal Society of Chemistry's 175 Faces of Chemistry.

Lavoisier Medal

The DuPont company also recognized their own scientist and gave her the Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement.

A Lavoisier Medal is an award named after and presented in honor of the father of modern chemistry - Antoine Lavoisier. Stephanie was the only female employee to have received that honor as of August 2019.

Other notable awards and honors in the past:

In 1959, Stephanie Kwolek received numerous prizes from the American Chemical Society (ACS), the first of many.

The American Chemical Society awarded Kwolek the Award for Creative Invention and the Chemical Pioneer Award, respectively, in 1980.

In 1995, Stephanie was included in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In 1996, the National Medal of Technology and the IRI Achievement Award were given to her. 

By the next year in 1997, she received the Perkin Medal from the American Chemical Society.

In 2003, she was added to the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Inductees of the National Women's Hall of Fame

Stephanie Kwolek has been presented honorary degrees by Carnegie Mellon University (2001), Worcester Polytechnic Institute (1981), and Clarkson University (1997).

Personal Life and Retirement

Stephanie Louise Kwolek, our Polish-American chemist, lived a fulfilled life. When Stephanie discovered that the polymer-chemistry work she was doing was exciting, even though she never married and started a family, she married her passion and the benefit her invention could offer from her career.

Kwolek continued to work with chemistry and on science projects with other scientists and students. Stephanie chose to stay and relocated to Wilmington, Delaware, with DuPont in 1950. 

Kwolek retired from DuPont as a research associate in 1986. She consulted for DuPont and served on the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences at the end of her life.

How many patents does Stephanie Kwolek have, and how long did Stephanie Kwolek work for DuPont? She filed and received 17 or 28 patents over her 40-year career as a research scientist.

Famous Female Scientists

She frequently tutored chemistry students. She also invented and published several classroom demonstrations, such as the Nylon Rope Trick, that are being used in schools today. 

Stephanie Louise Kwolek passed away at the age of 90 on June 18, 2014.

Key Takeaway

Stephanie Kwolek’s invention reflects her character: unpretentious, strong, resilient, and offers themselves to be extremely useful.

Entrepreneurship requires a great deal of understanding of their craft, just like chemistry and science. Young entrepreneurs, budding scientists, and chemical engineers can learn from  Stephanie Kwolek’s long but fruitful life.

Entrepreneurship requires a great deal of understanding of their craft

If the outcome is not what you expected, you can still use them to your advantage. Start over and strategize. When we meditate on our life, we are just like bullets. Being born is like the trigger is pulled. Once the bullet is out, it is out.

But the wisdom here is in two ways: becoming the bullet giving a substantial impact and becoming the bulletproof vest against failures. Business, like the fiber industry, is complicated.

Failure is possible. Imitating Stephanie Kwolek, she doesn’t give up when a failure occurs or is on the horizon. More reasons for her to persevere.

Take a bullet for yourself and see how your bullet’s impact in life goes.

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