By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Lester D. Shubin, 84, a 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 after a heart attack at his Fairfax County home.
Mr. 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, told Mr. 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 Mr. 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," Mr. Shubin was quoted as saying in a Justice Department report on the National Institute for Justice's accomplishments.
Attempts at body armor had been around for thousands of years, epitomized by medieval knights who 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 percent of the handguns then on the market, not rifles, and a wearer could suffer bruises or broken bones. But it saved lives.
Mr. Shubin went back to the Justice Department to wrest $5 million in research money out of the bureaucracy, and Montanarelli began developing the 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 in it.
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.
When Shubin and Montanarelli were satisfied with the performance of the body armor, they had to contend with manufacturers worried about getting sued if the products failed.
"That was almost a bigger problem than developing the body armor," Montanarelli, of Bel Air, Md., said in a phone interview.
Mr. Shubin got what was then the National Bureau of Standards to come up with specifications that reassured manufacturers. Using federal money, 500 vests were made to be given away. But many police departments wouldn't take them, and those that did had trouble persuading street cops to use them -- until 1975. That was the year 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.
Other police officers quickly adopted the vests, and law enforcement officers and the military use later versions.
"Lester just had a demeanor about him in working with people," Montanarelli said. "He never really got rattled. . . . He knew how to work within the system. In the 35 years I was in government, few people could come close to him for reasoning out how things should be done and then getting them accomplished."
Lester Donald Shubin was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 27, 1925. During World War II, he served in the Army in France and Germany. He was among the troops that liberated the Dachau concentration camp, said his son, Harry Shubin.
"He didn't talk about it until the last few years," Harry Shubin said. "It completely changed his life. He didn't follow rules if they didn't make sense to him. And he'd explain his thinking to you, and by the time he was done, you agreed."
After the war, Mr. Shubin became a chemist and worked for a series of companies in Philadelphia. He joined the Department of Justice in 1971 and retired in 1992 as technology assessment program manager.
In addition to his son, of Fairfax County, survivors include his wife of 50 years, Zelda Loigman Shubin, also of Fairfax, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Shubin also was among the first people to suggest that law enforcement agencies use dogs to find explosives. Skepticism about bomb-sniffing dogs evaporated after an incident at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami: A dog pawed at a wall and found a spent cartridge from a rivet gun. About the same time, another dog found a bomb on an American Airlines flight in New York, and a third, assigned to a federal drug interdiction agency, found $100 million in heroin.
"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."