Stephanie Kwolek dead; inventor of Kevlar was 90

Stephanie Kwolek, 83, shown in this June 20, Stephanie Kwolek, 83, shown in this June 20, 2007 file photo taken in Brandywine Hundred, Del., wears regular house gloves made with the Kevlar she invented. Her friend, Rita Vasta, told The Associated Press that Stephanie Kwolek died Wednesday in a Wilmington hospital. at age 90. Photo Credit: AP

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DOVER, Del. -- Police Lt. David Spicer took four .45-caliber slugs to the chest and arms at point-blank range and lived to tell about it. Like thousands of other police officers and soldiers shot in the line of duty, he owes his life to a woman in Delaware named Stephanie Kwolek.

Kwolek, who died Wednesday at 90, was a DuPont Co. chemist who in 1965 invented Kevlar, the lightweight, stronger-than-steel fiber used in bulletproof vests and other body armor around the world.

A pioneer as a woman in a heavily male field, Kwolek made the breakthrough while working on specialty fibers at a DuPont laboratory in Wilmington. At the time, DuPont was looking for strong, lightweight fibers that could replace steel in automobile tires and improve fuel economy.

"I knew that I had made a discovery," Kwolek said in an interview several years ago that was included in the Chemical Heritage Foundation's "Women in Chemistry" series. "I didn't shout 'Eureka,' but I was very excited, as was the whole laboratory."

Spicer was wearing a Kevlar vest when he was shot by a drug suspect in 2001. Two rounds shattered his left arm, ripping open an artery. A third was deflected by his badge. The last one hit his nametag, bending it into a horseshoe shape, before burrowing into his vest, leaving a 10-inch tear.

While recovering from his wounds, Spicer spoke briefly by telephone with Kwolek and thanked her. "She was a tremendous woman," he said.

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In a statement, DuPont CEO and chairwoman Ellen Kullman described Kwolek, who retired in 1986, as "a creative and determined chemist and a true pioneer for women in science."

Kwolek is the only female employee of DuPont to be awarded the company's Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement. She was recognized as a "persistent experimentalist and role model."

During the "Women in Chemistry" interview, Kwolek recounted the development of Kevlar. She said she found a solvent that was able to dissolve long-chain polymers into a solution that was thinner and more watery than other polymer solutions.

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She persuaded a skeptical colleague to put the solution into a spinneret, which turns liquid polymers into fibers.

"We spun it and it spun beautifully," she recalled. "It was very strong and very stiff, unlike anything we had made before."

The exceptionally tough fibers she produced were several times stronger by weight than steel. So strong, according to friend and former colleague Rita Vasta, that DuPont had to get new equipment to test the tensile strength.

Spicer and more than 3,100 other police officers are members of a "Survivors Club" formed by DuPont and the International Association of Chiefs of Police to promote the wearing of body armor.

Vasta said Kwolek had been ill about a week, although she didn't know the cause of death. Vasta said a funeral Mass is scheduled for June 28.

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