3. Biography

Childhood influences and education

Photo found on Lemelson Center website: http://invention.si.edu/inspiring-inventor-stephanie-kwolek-1923-2014

Photo of a young Stephanie Kwolek on horseback.  © 2017, Smithsonian Institution

Stephanie Kwolek was born on July 31st, 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania to John Kwolek, a naturalist, and Nellie Kwolek, a seamstress. Young Stephanie’s life was made up of trips in the wilderness with her father and lessons in textiles from her mother. Her father, before passing away when Stephanie was just 10 years old, would instill in her a love of science and teach her the basic tenant of scientific research: careful observation. Stephanie’s mother would help direct Stephanie’s path by telling her that while her fashion designs and general skill with fabrics was exceptional, Stephanie was “too much of a perfectionist” to enjoy the fashion industry. (Marr, 2015)

Black and white photo of a young Stephanie Kwolek with a diploma in hand. © 2017, Smithsonian Institution

Stephanie graduated from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College (now Carnegie Mellon) in 1940 with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry.

Stephanie Kwolek passed away on June 18th, 2014 at the age of 90. (Smith, 2014)

Work experience

After graduating college, Kwolek applied for a textile chemist position at DuPont, a chemical and engineering company. Kwolek was interviewed by research director William Hale Charch, after which he informed her that she would likely hear within a few weeks whether she would be offered the job. Kwolek pressured him for an answer sooner, as she had other offers on the table. In response, Charch made an offer for her on the spot, something Kwolek suspected was due to her assertive attitude. Stephanie, “one of the country’s first women research chemists,” would work for DuPont for 40 years, retiring in 1986. (Marr, 2015) (Ibock, 2012)

Stephanie Kwolek would receive worldwide attention for her work in her own life time, including induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994, only the fourth woman member of 113 at the time. In 1996, Kwolek received the National Medal of Technology, and in 1997 the Perkin Medal, presented by the Society of Chemical Industry. In 2003 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. (CHF, 2015)