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In memoriam: Millie Dresselhaus, the 'Queen of Carbon' and abiding advocate for gender equality in STEM

02 March 2017

Millie Dresselhaus | Credit: Dominick Reuter for MIT
Millie Dresselhaus

Mildred S. Dresselhaus, 86, a beloved and accomplished Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, died on 20 February in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Known as the ‘Queen of Carbon’ for her groundbreaking work in carbon nanotubes, Millie will long be remembered not only for scientific achievements, but for her steadfast advocacy for gender quality in STEM, as well as her heart of gold.

Millie was born 11 November 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. She received a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in 1951 and then continued her studies at Cambridge University after winning a Fulbright Fellowship. She then earned her MA from Radcliffe College in 1953 and her PhD in 1958 from the University of Chicago, studying under Physicist and Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi. Millie then worked as a postdoctoral fellow under the National Science Foundation at Cornell University from 1958 to 1960.

In 1960, Dresselhaus began her 57-year career with MIT. She started in the Solid State Division of Lincoln Laboratory and then joined the Department of Electrical Engineering in 1967 as a Visiting Professor. The Electrical Engineering Department promoted Millie as a permanent faculty member in 1968 and appointed her to an additional position in the Department of Physics in 1983. Dresselhaus then became the first female Institute Professor, an honor bestowed by the MIT faculty and administration for distinguished accomplishments in scholarship, education, service, and leadership in 1985.

In addition to her teaching and research positions, Dresselhaus served in numerous scientific leadership roles throughout her career. Some of her most significant roles include:

  • Director of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy
  • President of the American Physical Society
  • President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Chair of the governing board of the American Institute of Physics
  • Co-chair of the Decadal Study of Condensed Matter and Materials Physics
  • Treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences

Dresselhaus is also one of the most awarded females in history. She was honored with the highest award bestowed by the U.S. Government to American civilians, the Medal of Freedom. She also received the Medal of Science, awarded only to the nation’s top scientists. The list continues with an IEEE Medal of Honor, an Enrico Fermi Award from the U.S. Department of Energy, and the prestigious Kavli Prize for her pioneering contributions to the study of photons. Dresselhaus was also elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

Millie remained an active and influential role-model until her death, inspiring students and continuing to publish papers on subjects such as nanomaterials and nanostructural systems based on layered materials like graphene. Dresselhaus co-authored eight books and approximately 1,700 papers, and supervised more than 60 doctoral students. Her dedication, enthusiasm, and passion for science was unparalleled.

Dresselhaus was a pioneer in the study of fullerenes, also known as ‘buck-balls.’ Resembling a soccer ball, these cages of carbon atoms are used for drug delivery devices, lubricants, filters, catalysts, and other applications. She also founded the idea of the nanotube, a hollow tube made from rolling a sheet of graphene one atom thick. It became famously known for having the strength of steel, yet measuring one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair.

Millie Dresselhaus is survived by her husband, Gene, and by her four children and their families: Marianne and her husband, Geoffrey, of Palo Alto, California; Carl, of Arlington, Massachusetts; Paul and his wife, Maria, of Louisville, Colorado; and Eliot and his wife, Françoise, of France. She is also survived by her five grandchildren — Elizabeth, Clara, Shoshi, Leora, and Simon — and by her many students, whom she cared for very deeply.

Any equation she can solve; every problem she can resolve. Mildred equals brains plus fun. In math and science, she’s second to none. – Hunter High School yearbook, 1948

For more information, please read the announcement published by MIT.