Lester Shubin dies at 84; co-developer of the Kevlar bulletproof vest

Lester Shubin, the Justice Department researcher who turned a DuPont fabric intended for tires into the first truly effective bulletproof vests, saving the lives of more than 3,000 law enforcement officers, died Nov. 20 after a heart attack at his home in Fairfax, Va. He was 84.

Shubin was working at the National Institute for Justice, the research and development branch of the Justice Department, in the early 1970s when DuPont came out with a fabric that was to replace steel-belting on high-speed tires.

Nicholas Montanarelli, who worked for the Army’s Land Warfare Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, told Shubin about this new substance, Kevlar, which was said to be “stronger than steel, lighter than nylon.” Montanarelli obtained a couple of samples of what Shubin called “this funny yellow fabric,” and the men took it and some handguns to a firing range.

“We folded it over a couple of times and shot at it. The bullets didn’t go through,” Shubin later told a Justice Department report on the National Institute for Justice’s accomplishments.

Attempts at body armor have been around for thousands of years. Medieval knights clothed themselves head to toe in metal armor. By the World War II-era, there were cloth flak jackets with metal inserts.

Kevlar was different; it worked by deforming the bullet, spreading its energy as it hit the body armor. It wasn’t perfect; it protected against 80% to 85% of the handguns then on the market -- not rifles -- and a wearer could suffer bruises or broken bones. But it saved lives.

Shubin got $5 million in research money from the Justice Department, and Montanarelli began developing tests. They wanted their vest to be not only strong but also lighter than earlier versions and flexible enough so that police officers and soldiers could work while wearing it.

They put their new vest over a gelatin mold to determine how a human body might react to the impact of a handgun bullet and then used goats as test subjects.

When Shubin and Montanarelli were satisfied with the performance of the body armor, they had to contend with manufacturers worried about being sued if the products failed.

“That was almost a bigger problem than developing the body armor,” Montanarelli said.

Shubin got what was then the National Bureau of Standards to come up with specifications that reassured manufacturers. He used federal money to make and give away 500 vests.

But many police departments wouldn’t take them, and those that did had trouble persuading street cops to use them. Then in 1975 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.

He survived to complain about doctors who kept him in the hospital over Christmas Eve because they found it hard to believe that he had only bruises.

Shubin also was among the first people to suggest that law enforcement use dogs to find explosives.

“We learned that basically any dog could find explosives or drugs, even very small dogs like Chihuahuas, whose size could be an advantage,” Shubin once said. “Who is going to look twice at someone in a fur coat carrying a dog? But that dog could smell a bomb as well as a German shepherd.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1925, Shubin served in the Army during World War II and was among the troops that liberated the Dachau concentration camp, said his son, Harry.

After the war, Shubin became a chemist, working for various companies in Philadelphia before joining the Justice Department in 1971. He retired in 1992.

In addition to his son, Shubin is survived by his wife of 50 years, Zelda Loigman Shubin; and two grandchildren.

Sullivan writes for the Washington Post.

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