Remembering Mildred Dresselhaus, the Queen of Carbon

by Nancy DuVergne Smith on February 23, 2017 · 3 comments

in Alumni Life, Campus

One of MIT’s legendary professors, Mildred S. Dresselhaus, 86, died Monday after a brief illness.

Mildred Dresselhaus

Mildred Dresselhaus

In a letter to the MIT community, President L. Rafael Reif said, “…we lost a giant – an exceptionally creative scientist and engineer who was also a delightful human being.

“Millie Dresselhaus began life as the child of poor Polish immigrants in the Bronx; by the end, she was Institute Professor Emerita, the highest distinction awarded by the MIT faculty,” he said. “A physicist, materials scientist, and electrical engineer, she was known as the ‘Queen of Carbon’ because her work paved the way for much of today’s carbon-based nanotechnology.”

A solid-state physicist, she became an Institute Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1985 and held the emerita title until her death. Her research focused on the electronic structure of semi-metals and topics ranged from the study of fullerenes (or buckyballs) to nanomaterials and quantum structures. Learn more about her work during her 57-year career at MIT in an MIT News article.

Professor Dresselhaus poses with a Lego Millie, created by Maia Weinstock, MIT News Office deputy editor, who creates custom Lego figures of scientists and engineers as an avocation. Photo: Maia Weinstock

Professor Dresselhaus poses with a Lego Millie, created by Maia Weinstock, MIT News Office deputy editor, who creates custom Lego figures of scientists and engineers as an avocation. Photo: Maia Weinstock

Her awards list is long. US presidents honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. When Dresselhaus was awarded a $1 million Kavli Prize in 2012, she established the Mildred S. Dresselhaus Fund to support women or junior members of the faculty. Her Kavli prize “happened because of the investment MIT made in me many years ago through the generosity of others,” she said.

A tireless promoter of gender equity in science and engineering, she and a colleague organized the first MIT Women’s Forum and, for years, she led a first-year students’ forum designed to build the confidence of women students. She also became a symbol of women in science when GE recently issued a witty video titled “What If Scientists Were Celebrities? – GE

Dresselhaus, who was an honorary member of the MIT Alumni Association, also served as director of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy and president of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society. A MIT Technology Review profile describes her life and work, including raising four children with her husband, retired professor Gene Dresselhaus.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Bradley Layton March 3, 2017 at 2:50 pm

It would have been a pleasure to have taken a class from Mildred. What wonderful faculty we have at MIT!

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Helen Kurzban March 18, 2017 at 11:13 am

Mildred was a graduate of Hunter College High School. She was in my Jan. 1948 graduating class. She was a legend in her time.

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John June 28, 2017 at 8:39 am

We need more Millie’s !

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