Stephanie Kwolek, Inventor of Kevlar

Kevlar was invented by a woman named Stephanie Kwolek, who died earlier this week. Kevlar has saved countless lives. Kwolek spent 15 years in the lab without a promotion before her breakthrough invention. Forgive the rhetorical question, but I gotta put this out there: Could better resourcing earlier in her career have brought this innovation about sooner and saved more lives?

Not entirely surprisingly, Kwolek’s work provided great wealth to her employer, DuPont, but not to her. From the New York Times article announcing her death:

“Its popularity has proved a windfall for DuPont. Kevlar has generated several billion dollars in revenue for the company. Ms. Kwolek did not directly benefit from it financially, however; she signed over patent royalties to DuPont.”

It would be interesting to know what factors led her to sign over the patent royalties, which seems to be a decision not her in best interest. Fortunately, she had been recognized as a great scientist at many points in her career, including the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003,  and now-closed Plastics Hall of Fame in 2004.

“In 1996, Ms. Kwolek was awarded the National Medal of Technology for her work on synthetic fibers. On Wednesday, the day she died, DuPont announced that the one-millionth vest made with Kevlar technology had been sold.”

Children (and other aficionados of illustrated text) can read about her achievements in the short book “The Woman Who Invented the Thread That Stops the Bullets: The Genius of Stephanie Kwolek” (2013) by Edwin Brit Wyckoff.

 

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