In the years since there has been ongoing improvement in the design and manufacture of body armor, including enhancements to the process of fitting an individual officer. But no recent improvement comes close to what was accomplished years earlier by Stephanie L. Kwolek, a DuPont chemist who invented the technology behind Kevlar.
Kevlar, the lightweight but incredibly strong fabric – lighter and stronger than steel – has been incorporated into body armor since 1975, and DuPont estimates that over one million Kevlar-reinforced police vests have been manufactured since then.
More significantly, Kevlar-reinforced police vests have been credited with saving the lives of some 3,000 individual officers.
We say all this because last month the obituary appeared for Kwolek, who died at age 90. Her research that led to Kevlar began in the early 1960s, when she was part of a team at DuPont’s research laboratory in Delaware that was trying to develop a lightweight fiber that would be strong enough to replace the steel used in radial tires.
As is often the case in scientific research, Kwolek’s results were a product of hard work, perseverance, trial-and-error, and luck. When she finally was able to produce an unusually stiff fiber in the mid-60s, that fiber proved to be many times stronger than steel of equal weight, and resistant to fire.
DuPont quickly recognized the market potential and in the years since we have seen Kevlar used in a wide range of products, including police and firefighter gear and in the cut-resistant search gloves that remain among our product offerings.
Given the remarkable performance of the fiber she invented, given her accomplishments at a time when women in science were few and far between, and given the number of lives saved and still being protected by her discovery, it is only fitting that we pay our respects to Stephanie L. Kwolek.
In this photo from 2007, Stephanie L. Kwolek is wearing gloves made with Kevlar.
Photo courtesy The News Journal/Jennifer Corbet.