Stephanie L. Kwolek

Born: July 31, 1923 | New Kensington, PA, US
Died: June 17, 2014 | Talleyville, DE, US
Photograph of Stephanie Kwolek

CHF Collections, Photograph by Harry Kalish

Stephanie Kwolek joined DuPont in 1946, the same year she earned her BS in chemistry at Carnegie-Mellon University. She spent much of her time working on polymers, including aliphatic and aromatic polyamides. At DuPont, she worked with 1,4-B and was able to get a high molecular weight polymer. It was eventually discovered that the polymer spun beautifully and was quite strong. This polymer became Kevlar. Kwolek describes industry competition, the testing and scale-up of Kevlar, and the problems of confidentiality. She further discusses the relationship between Kevlar and Paul Flory's theory of liquid polymer crystals.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0168
No. of pages: 38
Minutes: 119

Interview Sessions

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent
21 March 1998
Wilmington, Delaware

Abstract of Interview

Stephanie Kwolek begins the interview with a discussion of her early career at DuPont. She joined DuPont in 1946, the same year she earned her BS in chemistry at Carnegie-Mellon University. Kwolek spent much of her time working on polymers, including aliphatic and aromatic polyamides. She discusses her level of independence in the laboratory, as well as her relationship with her supervisors. Kwolek began work with 1,4-B and was able to get a high molecular weight polymer. It was eventually discovered that the polymer spun beautifully and was quite strong. This polymer became Kevlar. Kwolek describes industry competition, the testing and scale-up of Kevlar, and the problems of confidentiality. She further discusses the relationship between Kevlar and Paul Flory's theory of liquid polymer crystals. Kwolek concludes the interview with comments on her love of writing, her decision to leave DuPont, and the future of polymer research.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1946 Carnegie Mellon University BS Chemistry

Professional Experience

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

1946 to 1959
Chemist
1959 to 1967
Research Chemist
1967 to 1974
Senior Research Chemist
1974 to 1986
Research Associate
1986
Consultant

National Academy of Sciences

1986
Research Council, Consultant

Honors

Year(s) Award
1959

Publication Award, Delaware Section, American Chemical Society

1976

Howard N. Potts Medal, Franklin Institute of Philadelphia

1978

Award for Contributions to Kevlar (du Pont trademark for aramid fiber), American Society for Medals

1980

Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists

1980

Award for Creative Invention, American Chemical Society

1981

Honorary Doctor of Science Award, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

1983

Alumni Association Merit Award, Carnegie-Mellon Universit

1985

Engineering/Technology Award, Society of Plastics Engineers

1985

Polymer Processing Hall of Fame, University of Akron

1988

Harold DeWitt Smith Memorial Award, American Society of Testing Materials

1990

<p>du Pont Honoree at the Bicentennial Celebration of the United States Patent and Copyright du Pont Honoree at the Bicentennial Celebration of the United States Patent and Copyright Laws

1995

Inducted member of Inventor's Hall of Fame

1997

Perkin Medal Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)

Table of Contents

Early Career at DuPont
1

Entering industry with a BS degree. Methods of polymerization. Aliphatic polyamides. Aromatic polyamides. Emphasis on long-term research. Hale Charch. Paul Morgan. Independence in laboratory.

Kevlar
4

Finding a solvent for 1,4-B. Spinning the polymer. Commercial opportunity in radial tires. Discovery of bullet-resistance. PVDT. Competition. Scaling up Kevlar. Secrecy.

Liquid Crystals
14

Paul Flory. Kevlar as theoretical discovery. Publishing results.

Scientific Process
17

Importance of clarity in writing. Necessity of honesty. Knowing when to abandon a line of research.

Conclusion
20

Decision to leave DuPont. Trend towards improving old products. Necessity of basic research. Future of innovation. Laboratory atmosphere. Colleagues. Choosing research projects. Current activities. Consulting.

Notes
35
Index
36

About the Interviewer

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Université Paris X. She holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne, and is currently a fellow at the Dibner Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bensaude-Vincent is the author of numerous articles and books on the history of chemistry and physics, including Eloge du mixte: matériaux nouveaux et philosophie ancienne. In 1997, she received the Dexter Award for outstanding achievement in the history of chemistry.