Historical Marker To Recognize Stephanie Kwolek, Inventor Of Kevlar

By Liz Hayes
The Valley News-Dispatch, Tarentum, Pa.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The late Stephanie Kwolek was a pioneering female scientist who invented the synthetic fiber known as Kevlar. Many people may not know her name but that won’t be for much longer. A Pennsylvania historian is making sure Kwolek leaves her “MARK” on the state.

The Valley News-Dispatch, Tarentum, Pa.

A West Chester historian is on a mission to ensure notable Pennsylvania women like the late Stephanie Kwolek of New Kensington get the credit they deserve.

After visiting sites dedicated to noteworthy women in neighboring states, Robyn Young was disappointed to learn that fewer than 5 percent of the historical markers organized through the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission were dedicated to women.

“I do a lot of women’s history research,” said Young, the author of the recent book “Women in Penn’s Woods.”

“I was just shocked at the difference. Why aren’t Pennsylvania women honored like they are in New York?”

Early in her research, Young had flagged Kwolek as worthy of recognition. The New Kensington native was a pioneering female scientist who invented the synthetic fiber known as Kevlar.

Born in 1923, Kwolek was the daughter of Polish immigrants John and Nellie Zajdel Kwolek. She attributed her curiosity and creativity to her father’s love of the natural world and her mother’s sewing skills.

After graduating from New Kensington High School in the early 1940s, she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1946 from the Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, the women’s college attached to what became Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

She took a research job at DuPont, a rare opportunity for women in the 1940s. Intending to stay long enough to earn money for medical school and become a doctor, she fell in love with her job.

“The work became so interesting, and I had the opportunity to make discoveries,” Kwolek said in a 2007 interview included in a video produced by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

“I made up my mind then that I would stay with the work I was doing, particularly since I found it very satisfying,” Kwolek said. “It appealed to the creative person in me.”

Kwolek was tasked in 1965 with improving vehicles’ fuel economy by inventing a fiber to replace the steel thread in tires.

She developed a polymer liquid that could be spun like cotton candy into a fiber five times stronger than steel but lighter than fiberglass.

“It spun beautifully. It was very strong and very stiff, unlike anything we had made before,” Kwolek said.

“I knew that I had made a discovery,” she said. “I didn’t shout, ‘Eureka!’ But I was very excited, as was the whole laboratory … and management.”

Kevlar is perhaps most well-known as the substance used in body armor and gear that protects police, soldiers, astronauts and firefighters.

But it is used in an array of products, from tennis rackets and skis to cables for fiber-optic and suspension bridges.

“When I look back on my career, I’m inspired most by the fact that I was fortunate enough to do something that would be of benefit to mankind,” she said.

Kwolek spent her entire career with DuPont until her retirement in 1986.

She died at age 90 in Delaware in 2014.

Honoring Kwolek
Kwolek is not believed to have married or had children; researchers are unaware of any immediate family members.

Young says that’s a common factor among several women she’s honoring this year with historical markers.

The others include African-American cartoonist Jackie Ormes of Monongahela; microbiologist Dr. Alice Evans of Towanda; and billiards champion Ruth McGinnis of Honesdale.

“A lot of these women weren’t married and didn’t have children,” Young said. “I wonder if they were forgotten because they had no descendants.”

Young submitted the paperwork to the state’s Historical and Museum Commission for a historical marker near Kwolek’s childhood home at 734 Seventh St., New Kensington.

It will be the 17th marker Young has organized for a historic Pennsylvania woman.

She said she’s assisted by funding from Philadelphia media entrepreneur and philanthropist Gerry Lenfest and by local historical societies like the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society in Tarentum, which helped her research Kwolek’s roots.

Dolly Mistrik, president of the historical society, and New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo said they welcomed the exposure for Kwolek and her ties to the area.

It will be the second historical marker dedicated in the city this year: Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams was honored in May. A New Kensington native who worked for the New Kensington Daily Dispatch, Adams was known for his photojournalism during the Vietnam War as well as his portraits for Parade magazine.

Mistrik said she hopes local emergency responders who benefit from Kevlar attend the ceremony when the marker is unveiled Oct. 1.

“It’s been an extremely satisfying discovery,” Kwolek said of Kevlar. “I don’t think there’s anything like saving someone’s life.”

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Most Popular

To Top