In Memoriam: Scientific Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus

Beyond multiple distinguished scientific awards, Mildred Dresselhaus also held many scientific leadership roles, including president of AAAS. | Dominick Reuter

Mildred Dresselhaus, a renowned physicist and celebrated Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who earned the title “Queen of Carbon” for deepening the world’s understanding of the atomic properties of carbon and the electronic properties of materials, died on 20 February following a brief illness. She was 86.

Dresselhaus was a recognized materials scientist, electrical engineer and recipient of the highest distinction awarded by the MIT faculty: Institute Professor Emerita of Physics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, as well as the winner of numerous distinguished scientific awards.  

“Yesterday, we lost a giant – an exceptionally creative scientist and engineer who was also a delightful human being,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reif in a 21 February statement. Reif said Dresselhaus was a person “who loved the beauty of scientific discovery and whose bold, rigorous, elegant research is now enabling new solutions to real-world problems.”

Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, praised her lifelong dedication to science and its advancement. Holt said he forged a lasting friendship with Dresselhaus in 1982 when she chaired a committee that selected him to serve as an American Physical Society and AAAS congressional science fellow, an experience that set Holt on a path of becoming a member of the House of Representatives, where he represented New Jersey from 1999 to 2015.

“This began a friendship of three and a half decades, although, in truth, everyone wanted to be, and thought he or she was, a special friend of Millie's,” said Holt on 21 February. “She was as knowledgeable and thoughtful as anyone I know about wide-ranging subjects of scientific research, public policy, education and science administration, and she was a superb and considerate teacher in everything she did.”

Dresselhaus broke many barriers over her lifetime and devoted much time to advancing the role of women in science and engineering. She was president of AAAS in 1998, the first female at MIT to become a full, tenured professor, the first individual recipient of a Kavli Prize in 2012 and the first female awarded the National Medal of Science and Engineering, an honor delivered by President George H.W. Bush, in 1990.

In 2014, President Obama presented her with the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is given to individuals “who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” said a White House statement at the time.

“Her influence is all around us – in the cars we drive, the energy we generate, the electronic devices that power our live,” said Obama at the on 10 November 2014 ceremony. “When she arrived at MIT in 1960, only 4 percent of students were women. Today, almost half are, a new generation walking the path that Millie blazed.”

The daughter of Polish immigrants and a child of the Great Depression grew up in the Bronx and went on be highly acclaimed for her work in science, engineering and teaching. She was chair of the governing board of the American Institute of Physics, president of the American Physical Society and treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences. She also was a co-recipient of the Enrico Fermi Award in 2012 and winner of the Vannevar Bush Award in 2009.

In presenting Dresselhaus with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Obama noted that her Hunter College High School yearbook included an apt mathematical salute: “‘Mildred equals brains plus fun. In math and science, she’s second to none.’”

[Associated image: Dominick Reuter]