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'Queen of Carbon,' pushed for women in science, dies at 86

Mildred S. Dresselhaus / Photo by Knut Falch, Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Legendary Locals of ArlingtonMildred S. Dresselhaus / Photo by Knut Falch, Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Legendary Locals of Arlington

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UPDATED, Feb. 24: Mildred S. Dresselhaus -- a celebrated MIT professor whose research unlocked some of the secrets of carbon -- died Monday, Feb. 20, at age 86.

The Arlington resident was the subject of a profile in Legendary Locals of Arlington (Arcadia, 2015). 

Dresselhaus, a solid-state physicist who was institute professor emerita of physics and electrical engineering and computer science, was nationally known for her work to develop wider opportunities for women in science and engineering, the MIT News Office reported

She died at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge following a brief period of poor health.

"Yesterday, we lost a giant -- an exceptionally creative scientist and engineer who was also a delightful human being," MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in an email Feb. 21. "Among her many 'firsts,' in 1968, Millie became the first woman at MIT to attain the rank of full, tenured professor. She was the first solo recipient of a Kavli Prize and the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in Engineering."

A winner of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom (from President Obama, in 2014) and the National Medal of Science (from President George H. W. Bush, in 1990), Dresselhaus was a member of the MIT faculty for 50 years.

Her research made fundamental discoveries in the electronic structure of semimetals. She studied various aspects of graphite and wrote a comprehensive book about fullerenes, a carbon molecule also known as "buckyballs," after Buckminster Fuller, an architect and theorist. She was well known for work on nanomaterials and other nanostructural systems based on layered materials.

An account in Legendary Locals, by Marjorie Howard, who co-wrote the book with Barbara Goodman, provides a more personal view. It says in part:

"For decades Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus has arrived at her office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by 5:30 a.m., ready to begin a day filled with teaching and research ....

"The woman dubbed 'The Queen of Carbon Science' is also known for encouraging young women who chose to study physics, meeting daily for 45 years with small groups of women to provide support. But her help for all students is legendary. When she was in Washington, serving in the Department of Energy, she flew home each weekend to meet with students and over the years many have said she inspired them in their studies.

"Her own background was challenging. Her parents were Polish immigrants and her father had trouble finding work so she grew up poor in the Bronx. She excelled in school but thought the only jobs open to women were teaching, nursing and secretarial work. She planned to teach until she took a physics course at Hunter College with Rosalyn Yalow, who would later win a Nobel Prize. Yalow recognized her abilities and persuaded her to focus on science.

"At the University of Chicago her advisor told her women had no place in science. Nevertheless she earned her PhD and married physicist Gene Dresselhaus. Both began teaching at MIT in the 1960s, one of the only places that would hire a married couple.

"She and her husband raised a family of four children and she says she managed to have a career and a family with the help of a longtime babysitter whose connection to the family, in turn, made college possible for her own children.

"Somehow, in her spare time, she managed to find time to play violin and viola in music groups and continues to play daily."

She donated the $1 million that came with the Kavli Prize to MIT to support women or junior faculty.

Dresselhaus is survived by her husband, Gene, and by her four children and their families: Marianne and her husband, Geoffrey, of Palo Alto, Calif.; Carl, of Arlington; Paul and his wife, Maria, of Louisville, Colo.; 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.

Gifts in her memory may be made to MIT.nano

Further obituary information will added when it is available.

MIT News Office, Feb. 21: Pioneer in the electronic properties of materials

This news summary was published Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, and upated Feb. 24, to add two links.

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