Lester Shubin

The chemist who saved lives with Kevlar

Lester Shubin


In the early 1970s, chemist Lester Shubin was working as a Justice Department researcher when he learned of a new substance developed by DuPont that was intended for use in tires. Called Kevlar, it was described as “stronger than steel, lighter than nylon.” With Nicholas Montanarelli, a project director at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, Shubin wrapped some of the fabric several times around a phone book and shot it with a .38 handgun. The bullets didn’t go through. Kevlar was soon being incorporated into bulletproof vests that would go on to save the lives of thousands of law-enforcement officers.

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“Attempts at body armor had been around for thousands of years,” said The Washington Post. “Kevlar was different; it worked by deforming the bullet.” Shubin managed “to wrest $5 million in research money” from the Justice Department, and he and Montanarelli began developing prototypes. “They put their new vest over a gelatin mold to determine how a body might react to the impact of a handgun bullet, and then drafted, as test subjects, a series of unfortunate goats.” The results were impressive. But not until 1975—when “a Seattle police officer wearing a Kevlar vest walked in on an armed robbery in a convenience store and was shot at point-blank range” and survived—did other officers regularly don the vest.

Trained in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, Shubin settled in Washington, D.C., after World War II and worked for several high-tech companies before joining the government. Among his other accomplishments, said The New York Times, he hit upon using a converted Airstream trailer as a quarantine container for astronauts returning from the moon. He also pioneered the use of bomb-sniffing dogs. “We learned that basically any dog could find explosives or drugs, even very small dogs like Chihuahuas, whose size could be an advantage,” Shubin said. “Who’s going to look twice at someone in a fur coat carrying a dog?”

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