Research Physiologist Named to National Inventors Hall of Fame

Alice Stoll joins legacy of innovators whose work left an imprint on society.

By Marsha Lynn Bragg, SWE Senior Editor

Alice Stoll was recognized for her work on fire-resistant fabrics. CREDIT: SWE Records, Walter P. Reuther Library

She enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves during World War II.

She studied at Hunter College, earning a B.A. in chemistry and physics and later a master’s in physiology and biophysics from Cornell University Medical College.

She earned two U.S. patents.

The Aerospace Medical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science each named her a fellow.

She is Alice Stoll, one of 15 innovators and four women inducted into the Class of 2024 National Inventors Hall of Fame for exceptional contributions to society. Inductees are celebrated in an annual awards program in Washington, D.C., hosted in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and its sponsors.

Stoll, who died in 2014, is a historical inductee recognized for the groundbreaking research she spearheaded in the late 1950s to mid-1960s that led to the development of fire-resistant fabrics. Her work made it possible to categorize materials by their ability to shield humans from thermal burns and showed that fabric made with fire-resistant fibers was far superior to fabric treated with a flame retardant.
After earning a master’s degree from Cornell, Stoll enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and served in active duty from 1943 to 1946. She remained in the Reserves, retiring in 1966 as a commander in the Medical Service Corps.

“I entered the engineering field via the backdoor in the days when bioengineering had not yet been invented and interdisciplinary activities scarcely existed,” Stoll said in a July 1973 interview in Mechanical Engineering magazine. “Medical and biological researchers in those days bought instrumentation off the shelf or made their own. Since I greatly enjoy both designing and constructing hardware to provide solutions to laboratory problems, as time went on I became more and more engrossed in this kind of work. Finally, sometime around 1960, the engineering community decided that ‘by their works ye shall know them’ and gathered me into their fold.”

Each March, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in partnership with the Society of Women Engineers, sponsors a Women’s History Month exhibit at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia. This year’s theme, Beyond Boundaries, celebrates women who pushed the boundaries of their time to make substantive and innovative contributions to their field. CREDIT: National Inventors Hall of Fame

After Cornell, Stoll joined the Naval Air Development Center in Warminster Township, Pennsylvania, first as a research physiologist and a special technical assistant in the thermal lab. She gathered data from earlier studies on the effects of centrifugal acceleration on humans for applications in aviation and space flight. From her experimentations, she developed what became known as the Stoll Curve to describe human tolerance to centrifugal acceleration. This work helped aircraft designers determine when conditions required combat pilots to be protected against high gravitational force effects.

She continued her research into the early 1960s, working with chemist Maria A. Chianta to determine how much heat energy could cause second-degree burns. She created a new Stoll Curve to chart heat levels and duration that could produce second-degree burns and pain under various conditions. Their research determined that the degree of skin damage was based on the rise in skin temperature and the total exposure time and not the source of heat, whether radiant or convective. Stoll and Chianta co-wrote a paper, “Thermal Analysis of Combustion of Fabric in Oxygen-Enriched Atmospheres,” and presented it in 1972 at the fire research session winter meeting.

Stoll advanced to lead the naval center’s thermal lab, serving in this leadership role for four years before becoming head of its biophysics and bioastronautics division in 1964. She retired in 1980.

Stoll’s work provided foundational knowledge on thermal burns and how to prevent them, determining that fire-resistant fabric and not fire-retardant fabric was the best method of protection. She patented a device to test fabrics and measure their properties and their ability to insulate against heat. This helped to predict the physiological effects on the skin under one or more layers of fabric under severe heat.

She tested more than 200 materials before identifying a synthetic polymer, HT-1, as fire-resistant. In 1967, DuPont marketed the fiber — which they called Nomex — as the best fiber for fire-resistant clothing. Unlike nylon, Nomex fibers do not melt or support combustion. Instead, when exposed to extreme heat, the fiber absorbs the heat rather than transmitting it. Nomex proved to be so effective that it was used to create the first inherently fire-resistant protective clothing for the Navy. Soon other branches of the military and fire departments began to use it. Today Nomex is one of the most common fibers used in fire-protective clothing and aircraft upholstery. It also meets industry association and government standards for workplace safety.

Stoll’s accomplishments garnered several awards, including the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award in 1969 and the Aerospace Physiology Society Paul Bert Award in 1972. She supported SWE as chair of the awards committee in 1970 and spoke about her research at a career information night in February 1970, which was hosted by the SWE New York Section. Stoll also represented SWE on the Engineers Joint Council Medal of Science awards committee in 1973 and 1974. Additionally, Hunter College established the Maria A. Chianta and Alice M. Stoll Professor of Physics Chair in her honor.