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Mildred Dresselhaus, 1930-2017
By Shlomo Maital
On Feb. 20, MIT Professor of physics and electrical engineering, Mildred Dresselhaus, passed away at her home in Cambridge, MA. She was 86. Born Mildred Spiewak, she was the very first female Institute Professor at MIT (an Institute Professor is a super-distinguished professor).
Dresselhaus was known as the Queen of Carbon, in scientific circles. She used magnetic fields and lasers to map out the electric structure of carbon and found that by stitching in alkali materials, carbon can become a superconductor. She pioneered in researching “buckyballs” (fullerenes), soccer-ball shaped cages of carbon atoms, widely used for drug delivery, lubricants and catalysts. She also had the idea of rolling a single layer of carbon atoms into a hollow tube, the nanotube, making a structure with the strength of steel but just 1/10,000th the width of a human hair.
Dresselhaus published over 1,700 scientific papers. Her life was one of struggle and perseverance. She was the daughter of poor Jewish immigrants from Poland, and grew up in the Bronx. She went through university on scholarship.
She once recounted, according to the New York Times, “my early years were spent in a dangerous multiracial low-income neighborhood. My early elementary school memories up through ninth grade are of teachers struggling to maintain class discipline with occasional coverage of academics”. From age 6, she travelled long distances on the subway. She got in to Hunter High School, in Manhattan, and then Hunter College. Her lifelong mentor was Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow, from whom she took an elementary physics course.
Why did she choose to study carbon? Because it was unpopular and considered uninteresting, she observed. She and her husband were hired by MIT in 1960, because MIT was one of the few places that would hire a husband and wife team. At Lincoln Labs, she was one of only two women, out of a scientific staff of 1,000.
She is survived by her husband Gene, and four children, Marianne, Carl, Paul and Eliot, and five grandchildren. She will be remembered as the first woman to secure a full professorship at MIT, in 1968, and she worked “very vigorously to ensure she would not be the last”, observed Natalie Angier, in the New York Times.