Originally Posted on A Might Girl: http://www.amightygirl.com (You can also find them on Facebook):
Today in Mighty Girl history, pioneering chemist Stephanie Kwolek, whose invention of Kevlar has saved countless lives, was born in 1923. Kevlar is a fiber five times stronger than steel that is now used in numerous products ranging from boots for firefighters to spacecraft — and most famously, in bulletproof vests. It’s estimated that since Kevlar’s introduction to body armor in the 1970s, the lives of 3,000 police officers have been saved, as well as those of innumerable soldiers and others in conflict zones. On the day that she died last month at the age of 90, DuPont announced that the one-millionth protective vest made using Kwolek’s lifesaving invention was sold.
Born to Polish immigrants, Kwolek grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and earned a degree in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, now a part of Carnegie Mellon University. Kwolek initially planned to become a doctor but could not afford medical school. She accepted a position as a chemist with DuPont in 1946 on what she thought would be a temporary basis until she could pursue her interest in medicine. After becoming engrossed in research, she decided that chemistry was her passion and eventually stayed at DuPont for over 40 years.
Kwolek discovered Kevlar while working as part of a team trying to find alternatives to replace the steel used in radial tires in order to make cars lighter in anticipation of a future gas shortage. In 1964, she was trying to convert a solid polymer into a liquid form and her creation turned out thin and opaque rather than the syrupy mixture she expected. Although her peers thought it was a failed experiment, she persisted with her investigation and discovered that, after the liquid was removed, the fiber was unusually stiff. Further research revealed the vast potential of Kwolek’s discovery and DuPont eventually invested $500 million to develop it for commercial application.
The recipient or co-recipient of 17 patents, Kwolek has been widely honored for her contributions to science, including the 1999 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996 National Medal of Technology, the American Innovator Award, as well as being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. DuPont also awarded her the company’s Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement and she remains the only female employee to ever receive that honor.
To Kwolek, however, who headed polymer research at DuPont until her retirement in 1989, the impact of her work was her greatest reward. In an interview with the Chemical Heritage Foundation, she observed: “When I look back on my career I’m inspired most by the fact that I was fortunate enough to do something that would be of benefit to mankind. It’s been an extremely satisfying discovery. I don’t think there’s anything like saving someone’s life to bring you satisfaction and happiness.”
To watch an excellent 15 minute video biography on Stephanie Kwolek and her incredible scientific contributions, visit http://bit.ly/1lkHy15
Stephanie Kwolek is one of the many female inventors featured in the excellent book “Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women” for ages 8 and up at http://www.amightygirl.com/girls-think-of-everything
She is also the subject of a children’s book for ages 7 to 9, “The Woman Who Invented the Thread that Stops Bullets: The Genius of Stephanie Kwolek” at http://www.amightygirl.com/stephanie-kwolek
For a fantastic fictional story starring a girl who loves to invent, we highly recommend “Rosie Revere, Engineer” for ages 4 to 9 at http://www.amightygirl.com/rosie-revere-engineer
To encourage your Mighty Girl’s interest in science, visit our “Science Toys” section at http://www.amightygirl.com/toys/toys-games/science-math
And, for one of our favorite toys to get kids excited about chemistry from a young age, check out this colorful set of Periodic Table Building Blocks at http://www.amightygirl.com/periodic-table-building-blocks