Early life and education
Kwolek was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, in 1923. Her father,
John Kwolek, died when she was ten years old. Kwolek attributes her
interest in science to him and an interest in fashion to her mother,
Nellie Zajdel Kwolek. In 1946, Kwolek earned a degree in Chemistry from
Carnegie Mellon University (then known as Margaret Morrison Carnegie
College). Kwolek had planned on becoming a doctor and hoped that a
temporary job in a chemistry-related field could earn her enough money
to go to medical school.
In 1946, Hale Charch, a future mentor to Kwolek, offered her a
position at DuPont's Buffalo, New York facility as soon as he met her.
Though Kwolek initially only intended to work for DuPont temporarily,
she found the work interesting enough to stay and not pursue a medical
career. Kwolek moved to Wilmington, Delaware in 1950 to continue to work
for DuPont. In 1959, she won a publication award from the American
Chemical Society (ACS).
While working for DuPont, Kwolek invented Kevlar. In 1964, in
anticipation of a gasoline shortage, her group began searching for a
lightweight yet strong fiber to be used in tires. The polymers she had
been working with at the time, poly-p-Phenylene-terephthalate and
polybenzamide, formed liquid crystal while in solution, something unique
to those polymers at the time.
The solution was "cloudy, opalescent upon being stirred, and
of low viscosity" and usually was thrown away. However, Kwolek persuaded
technician Charles Smullen, who ran the spinneret, to test her solution.
She was amazed to find that the new fiber would not break when nylon
typically would. Both her supervisor and the laboratory director
understood the significance of her discovery and a new field of polymer
chemistry quickly arose. By 1971, modern Kevlar was introduced. However,
Kwolek was not very involved in developing the applications of Kevlar.
In 1986, Kwolek retired as a research associate for DuPont. However,
she still consults for DuPont, and also serves on both the National
Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences. During her 40
years as a research scientist, she filed and received either 17 or 28
patents. In 1995, she became the fourth woman to be added to the
National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1996, she received the National
Medal of Technology, and in 2003, she was added to the National Women's
Hall of Fame. She received the 1997 Perkin Medal from the American
Chemical Society, and a 1980 award from the ACS for "Creative