Mildred Dresselhaus, who grew up in a rough New York neighborhood, became one of America’s foremost physicists and worked to encourage other women to enter such seemingly daunting occupations, died Feb. 20 at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. She was 86.
The death was announced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was a faculty member for 50 years. No cause was reported.
Dr. Dresselhaus was a leader in the study of the electrical and electronic properties of solids, with specialties in exotic forms of carbon and in nanoscience, the physics of materials at scales of one-billionth of a meter.
Her abilities helped her achieve many firsts. She was the first woman to serve as a full and tenured professor at MIT and the first woman (in 1990) to win the National Medal of Science for engineering.
In recognition of her efforts to understand and develop newer, stronger, more technologically useful carbon molecules, she was dubbed the “queen of carbon science.”
She was prominent in the development of carbon nanotubes, ultra-thin-walled, tubular structures composed of many carbon atoms, that promised advances in the conduction of electricity and the creation of sturdier materials.
In addition, she was recognized for bringing her knowledge of electronic and molecular physics to bear on the development of better thermoelectric materials. These offer the possibility of new means of electrical generation, transforming temperature differences into electrical voltages.
By one estimate, she was the author or co-author of more than 1,700 publications and articles.
In a White House ceremony in 2014, President Barack Obama draped around her neck the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Only a few weeks ago, when General Electric launched a program to boost the number of women in its technical fields, she became what might be called the campaign’s poster woman.
A TV ad posed the question, “What if female scientists were celebrities?” In response to that question, the ad imagined Dr. Dresselhaus endowed with the ubiquitous presence and attentive adulation characteristic of figures in popular culture.
Mildred Spiewak was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 11, 1930, the daughter of immigrant parents recently arrived from Poland. She grew up in the Bronx during the Great Depression, and she took an unsentimental view of her childhood. She worked in factories to help her hard-pressed family.
“My early years were spent in a dangerous, multiracial, low-income neighborhood,” she wrote in a biographical essay. “My early elementary school memories up through ninth grade are of teachers struggling to maintain class discipline with occasional coverage of academics.”
Working in her favor, however, was the presence of a brother who was a child prodigy on the violin. It led to free musical training for her, which led her to become acquainted with parents of fellow music students who pointed her toward a selective public high school for girls.
From there, it was on to Hunter College, one of the city’s free colleges, where Rosalyn Yalow, who later became a Nobel laureate in physiology/medicine, happened to be teaching for a semester. Yalow pointed her toward physics.
She graduated in 1951, then won a Fulbright fellowship to study at the University of Cambridge in England. She received a master’s degree from Radcliffe College in 1953 and a doctorate in 1958 from the University of Chicago, where she took a course in quantum mechanics from Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi shortly before his death.
At Chicago, she met her husband, Gene Dresselhaus, a theoretical physicist. The couple went to work in 1960 at the same institution, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
It was at a time when solid-state physics was beginning to come into its own, as the transistor came to revolutionize electronics, and knowledge of how electrons behaved in solid materials was vigorously pursued.
At the Lincoln Lab, Mildred Dresselhaus worked in the electrooptics of semimetals. For her, in the years between 1959 and 1964, it was the right subject at the right time. Semiconductors, the key ingredient of modern electronic devices, were receiving greater emphasis than semimetals.
“There were advantages for me to work in a less competitive research area while we had our babies,” she wrote in her biographical essay. But the work she did was regarded as a significant contribution to condensed-matter physics.
In 1968, she became a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and in 1985, she was made an institute professor, a high honor held by no more than 12 active teachers at a time. Her work on the movement of electrons — and therefore electric currents — through solids became significant for device development.
Besides the National Medal of Science, she was also honored with the Energy Department’s Enrico Fermi Award. Dr. Dresselhaus served as director of the Energy Department’s science office from 2000 to 2001, was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received several awards for leadership in science and for her teaching.
She received Carnegie Foundation funding in 1973 to advance women’s study in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as physics. That same year, she was appointed to the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé chair, an institute-wide chair at MIT endowed in support of the scholarship of women in science and engineering.
For women, it is “almost the best career they can have,” she told NPR in 2014. “There are two reasons. One, the work is very interesting, and secondly, you’re judged by what you do and not what you look like, and I think that that is a very important thing for women in science. The sad thing is that so few women choose it because there aren’t so many of us and they don’t like to be outnumbered by the men.”
Besides her husband, survivors include four children and five grandchildren, according to MIT.
Dr. Dresselhaus’s achievements were owed to innate ability, but her experiences also played a role, along with a positive way of confronting the world.
At the Medal of Freedom ceremony, she heard her life cited as testimony to what can be achieved “when we summon the courage to follow our curiosity and our dreams.”