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 by the name of 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 heavily male field, Kwolek made the breakthrough while working on specialty fibers at a DuPont laboratory in Wilmington. She developed a liquid crystalline solution that could be spun into exceptionally tough fibers, several times stronger by weight than steel.
“There of course was immediate excitement because everybody realized the potential of this discovery,” Kwolek said in an interview several years ago with the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.
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.
“If that round would have entered my body, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” the Dover police officer said.
While recovering from his wounds, Spicer spoke briefly by telephone with Kwolek and thanked her.
“She was a tremendous woman,” he said.
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.”
“She leaves a wonderful legacy of thousands of lives saved and countless injuries prevented by products made possible by her discovery,” Kullman said.
Spicer and thousands of 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.
While Kevlar has become synonymous with protective vests and helmets, it originally was developed for use in automobile tires. It has since become a component of such products as airplanes, armored military vehicles, cellphones and sailboats.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a statement that Kwolek had made the world safer.
Rita Vasta, a friend of Kwolek and fellow chemist who also worked at DuPont, said Kwolek had been ill about a week, although she didn’t know the cause of death. Vasta said a Catholic funeral Mass is scheduled June 28.