Born in the Bronx to poor Jewish immigrants who had fled Poland, Dresselhaus grew up poor; sometimes her family needed assistance to eat. But she did well in school, getting scholarships to college to study physics. Dresselhaus did so well, she studied for her Ph.D under Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi. After two years of postdoc work at Cornell University, she moved to MIT’s Lincoln Lab as a staff member, then became a visiting professor of electrical engineering at MIT in 1967, the first female tenured faculty member in 1968, and a professor of physics in 1983. In 1985, she was appointed the first female Institute Professor (MIT’s highest title for a professor). Her field: carbon. Lonely, boring carbon. “I was happy to work on a project that most people thought was hard and not that interesting,” she said. “If one day I had to be at home with a sick child, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” Thanks in part to her work, carbon is considered a key to modern materials science and nanotechnology. She became known as the “Queen of Carbon” while working with carbon ribbons, semiconductors, superconductors, graphite intercalation compounds, fullerenes, and low-dimensional thermoelectrics. She rolled sheets of carbon atoms into a hollow tube to create “nanotubes,” extremely thin, yet extremely strong.
Dresselhaus published more than 1,700 scientific papers and books, all while encouraging other women in the sciences, creating the first Women’s Forum at MIT to attract more female scientists — and then getting a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to keep that work up: today, about 22 percent of MIT’s faculty is female. “Millie made it all seem possible, even effortless,” says MIT materials science and engineering Prof. Lorna Gibson. “I knew it wouldn’t be, but she was such an approachable intellectual powerhouse, she made it seem that way.” If all that wasn’t enough, Dr. Dresselhaus was elected president of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was the director of the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy, chair of the governing board of the American Institute of Physics, and on the board of the National Academy of Sciences. She was awarded the 1990 National Medal of Science in recognition of her work on the electronic properties of materials. In 2012 she received the Enrico Fermi Award (with Burton Richter), and in 2014 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Every morning she’d leave the house at 5:30, the first car in the parking lot every day,” said her granddaughter, Leora Cooper — a graduate student at MIT. “Her life and her science were intertwined.” Dr. Dresselhaus never fully retired: she recently appeared in a TV commercial, again promoting women in science and engineering. She died on February 20 in Cambridge, Mass., at 86.