Born in 1923 in Pennsylvania, USA, Stephanie Kwolek had no intention of being a world-changing chemist. She wanted to be a doctor.
Without the funds to go to medical school after finishing her degree in chemistry in 1946, she took a “temporary” job with chemical giant DuPont.
Nylon had recently been discovered and Kwolek was tasked to discover more artificial fibres, a job she found so fascinating she stayed on.
Kwolek discovered a chemical solution with straight, rod-like molecules, but she had difficulties getting the solution in the fibre-making machine because the operator was convinced the machine would break.
It didn’t break, and the resultant material, Kevlar, was ounce-for-ounce stronger than steel. Kevlar changed the world, being used in skis, radial tires, brake pads, suspension bridge cables, helmets, and hiking and camping gear. Its most famous use, however, is in bulletproof vests; this use alone has saved untold lives.
With great modesty, Kwolek says her work was a team effort, but when asked about her approach to it, she gives a great insight into her mindset:
“I discovered over the years that I seem to see things that other people did not see… if things don’t work out I don’t just throw them out, I struggle over them, to try and see if there’s something there.”
“If it’s a good idea… go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”
In a world that was at the time dominated by male scientists Stephanie Kwolek’s invention of Kevlar is all the more remarkable. Steadiness, fresh thinking and love of her work are the keys to her achievement. – Bernardo Moya