Rad Women Of History: Stephanie Kwolek Was The Chemist Who Invented Kevlar
Rad Women Of History is a series devoted to making sure your kids know that their mom wasn’t the first female badass, no matter what history books tell them.
Putting Mentos in a Coke isn’t chemistry. Creating a super strong polymer that can stop a speeding bullet — that’s chemistry. If your kid doesn’t know the story behind legendary chemist, Stephanie Kwolek, they should. Especially those whose parents patrol the streets or are on deployment.
When Stephanie Kwolek graduated Carnegie Mellon in 1946 she initially wanted to use her chemistry degree to study medicine. Instead, she took a gig at DuPont just to save up money for med school. Then she stuck around for more than 40 years. In hindsight, her relationship with DuPont was like carbon meeting hydrogen. (Who doesn’t love covalent bond humor?)
The timing was right, too. With so many men off fighting in World War II, DuPont had a lot of openings. If women could play baseball while the men were away, they could probably also handle groundbreaking scientific research. By the time the war was over, Kwolek’s progress in her research made her indispensable.
In 1964 America was worried about a gas shortage, so DuPont assigned Kwolek’s team to find the next generation of polymers capable of performing in extreme conditions. The big application was a lightweight fiber that could be used in car tires. But instead of coming up with an alternative for those steel-belted white walls, Kwolek invented Kevlar.
It happened when an experiment to turn solid polymer into a liquid didn’t go as planned. DuPont considered it a failure, but Kwolek scienced the shit out this “mistake.” She had the lab tech put it through the spinneret and found what she had on her hands was liquid crystalline polyamide solution that could be spun into fibers 5 times stronger than steel. This led to a new field of polymer chemistry. And in 1971, led to modern Kevlar. That would be the material in everything from firefighters’ boots, to the space shuttle, to body armor.
Kwolek became the first woman to win DuPont’s Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement — although they waited until 1995, which was a dick move. Of course, when she went on to win the National Medal of Technology she could throw it in their face. She was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and most impressively, the Plastics Hall of Fame. In 1986 when Kwolek retired as head of polymer research at DuPont’s Pioneering Lab she dedicated her time to getting girls involved in chemistry, and even tutored aspiring chemists. Which, after this story, is hopefully going to be your kid.