1998 Common Wealth Award for Science and Invention
Stephanie Louise Kwolek was born in 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, where her curiosity and independence exerted themselves at an early age and eventually led to a career in science. Kwolek earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, now Carnegie-Mellon University. Upon graduating in 1946 she joined DuPont, where she researched and developed new synthetic fibers. She began searching for new high-performance chemical compounds in 1964 and discovered a compound that, when spun into fiber, was very strong and stiff. She found that the rigidity of this fiber nearly doubled when exposed to heat. The final result was Kevlar®, an incredibly strong, lightweight material that does not rust or corrode. These characteristics make it perfect for use in underwater cables, brake linings, motorcycle helmets, belted tires, boats, sail cloth, parachutes and building materials. It is perhaps best known for its use in bullet-proof vests, which have saved the lives of some 2000 law enforcement officers. The recipient of a 1996 National Medal of Technology, among many other honors, Kwolek has obtained 28 patents during her 40-year career. She retired from DuPont in 1986 and now works as a consultant in the field of high-performance chemical compounds.