Mil­dred Dres­sel­haus, a top U.S. physi­cist, was dubbed the “queen of car­bon sci­ence.”

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MARTIN WEIL martin.weil@wash­post.com

Mil­dred Dres­sel­haus, who grew up in a rough New York neigh­bor­hood, be­came one of Amer­ica’s fore­most physi­cists and worked to en­cour­age other women to en­ter such seem­ingly daunt­ing oc­cu­pa­tions, died Feb. 20 at a hospi­tal in Cam­bridge, Mass. She was 86.

The death was an­nounced by the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, where she was a fac­ulty mem­ber for 50 years. No cause was re­ported.

Dr. Dres­sel­haus was a leader in the study of the elec­tri­cal and elec­tronic prop­er­ties of solids, with spe­cial­ties in ex­otic forms of car­bon and in nanoscience, the physics of ma­te­ri­als at scales of one-bil­lionth of a me­ter.

Her abil­i­ties helped her achieve many firsts. She was the first woman to serve as a full and tenured pro­fes­sor at MIT and the first woman (in 1990) to win the Na­tional Medal of Sci­ence for en­gi­neer­ing.

In recog­ni­tion of her ef­forts to un­der­stand and de­velop newer, stronger, more tech­no­log­i­cally use­ful car­bon mol­e­cules, she was dubbed the “queen of car­bon sci­ence.”

She was prom­i­nent in the devel­op­ment of car­bon nan­otubes, ul­tra-thin-walled, tubu­lar struc­tures com­posed of many car­bon atoms, that promised ad­vances in the con­duc­tion of elec­tric­ity and the creation of stur­dier ma­te­ri­als.

In ad­di­tion, she was rec­og­nized for bring­ing her knowl­edge of elec­tronic and molec­u­lar physics to bear on the devel­op­ment of bet­ter ther­mo­elec­tric ma­te­ri­als. These of­fer the pos­si­bil­ity of new means of elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tion, trans­form­ing tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ences into elec­tri­cal volt­ages.

By one es­ti­mate, she was the author or co-author of more than 1,700 pub­li­ca­tions and ar­ti­cles.

In a White House cer­e­mony in 2014, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama draped around her neck the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom, the coun­try’s high­est civil­ian honor.

Only a few weeks ago, when Gen­eral Elec­tric launched a pro­gram to boost the num­ber of women in its tech­ni­cal fields, she be­came what might be called the cam­paign’s poster woman.

A TV ad posed the ques­tion, “What if fe­male sci­en­tists were celebri­ties?” In re­sponse to that ques­tion, the ad imag­ined Dr. Dres­sel­haus en­dowed with the ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence and at­ten­tive adu­la­tion char­ac­ter­is­tic of fig­ures in pop­u­lar cul­ture.

Mil­dred Spiewak was born in Brook­lyn on Nov. 11, 1930, the daugh­ter of im­mi­grant par­ents re­cently ar­rived from Poland. She grew up in the Bronx dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, and she took an un­sen­ti­men­tal view of her child­hood. She worked in fac­to­ries to help her hard-pressed family.

“My early years were spent in a danger­ous, mul­tira­cial, low­in­come neigh­bor­hood,” she wrote in a bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say. “My early ele­men­tary school me­mories up through ninth grade are of teach­ers strug­gling to main­tain class dis­ci­pline with oc­ca­sional cov­er­age of aca­demics.”

Work­ing in her fa­vor, how­ever, was the pres­ence of a brother who was a child prodigy on the vi­o­lin. It led to free mu­si­cal train­ing for her, which led her to be­come ac­quainted with par­ents of fel­low mu­sic stu­dents who pointed her to­ward a selec­tive pub­lic high school for girls.

From there, it was on to Hunter Col­lege, one of the city’s free colleges, where Ros­alyn Yalow, who later be­came a No­bel lau­re­ate in phys­i­ol­ogy/medicine, hap­pened to be teach­ing for a se­mes­ter. Yalow pointed her to­ward physics.

She grad­u­ated in 1951, then won a Ful­bright fel­low­ship to study at the Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge in Eng­land. She re­ceived a mas­ter’s de­gree from Rad­cliffe Col­lege in 1953 and a doc­tor­ate in 1958 from the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago, where she took a course in quan­tum me­chan­ics from No­bel lau­re­ate En­rico Fermi shortly be­fore his death.

At Chicago, she met her hus­band, Gene Dres­sel­haus, also a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist. The cou­ple went to work in 1960 at the same in­sti­tu­tion, the MIT Lin­coln Lab­o­ra­tory.

It was at a time when solid-state physics was beginning to come into its own, as the tran­sis­tor came to rev­o­lu­tion­ize elec­tron­ics, and knowl­edge of how elec­trons be­haved in solid ma­te­ri­als was vig­or­ously pur­sued.

At the Lin­coln Lab, Mil­dred Dres­sel­haus worked in the elec­troop­tics of semimet­als. For her, in the years be­tween 1959 and 1964, it was the right sub­ject at the right time. Semi­con­duc­tors, the key in­gre­di­ent of mod­ern elec­tronic de­vices, were re­ceiv­ing greater em­pha­sis than semimet­als.

“There were ad­van­tages for me to work in a less com­pet­i­tive re­search area while we had our ba­bies,” she wrote in her bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say. But the work she did was re­garded as a sig­nif­i­cant con­tribu- tion to con­densed-mat­ter physics.

In 1968, she be­came a pro­fes­sor of elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing and com­puter sci­ence at MIT, and in 1985, she was made an in­sti­tute pro­fes­sor, a high honor held by no more than 12 ac­tive teach­ers at a time. Her work on the move­ment of elec­trons — and there­fore elec­tric cur­rents — through solids be­came sig­nif­i­cant for de­vice devel­op­ment.

Be­sides the Na­tional Medal of Sci­ence, she was also hon­ored with the En­ergy Department’s En­rico Fermi Award. Dr. Dres­sel­haus served as di­rec­tor of the En­ergy Department’s sci­ence of­fice from 2000 to 2001, was a mem­ber of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences and re­ceived sev­eral awards for lead­er­ship in sci­ence and for teach­ing.

She re­ceived Carnegie Foun­da­tion fund­ing in 1973 to ad­vance women’s study in tra­di­tion­ally male-dom­i­nated fields, such as physics. That same year, she was ap­pointed to the Abby Rock­e­feller Mauzé chair, an in­sti­tute-wide chair at MIT en­dowed in sup­port of the schol­ar­ship of women in sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing.

For women, it is “al­most the best ca­reer they can have,” she told NPR in 2014. “There are two rea­sons. One, the work is very in­ter­est­ing, and se­condly, you’re judged by what you do and not what you look like, and I think that that is a very im­por­tant thing for women in sci­ence. The sad thing is that so few women choose it be­cause there aren’t so many of us and they don’t like to be out­num­bered by the men.”

Be­sides her hus­band, sur­vivors in­clude four chil­dren and five grand­chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to MIT.

Dr. Dres­sel­haus’s achieve­ments were owed to in­nate ability, but her ex­pe­ri­ences also played a role, along with a pos­i­tive way of con­fronting the world.

At the Medal of Free­dom cer­e­mony, she heard her life cited as tes­ti­mony to what can be achieved “when we sum­mon the courage to fol­low our cu­rios­ity and our dreams.”

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama awards Mil­dred Dres­sel­haus the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom in 2014. She wrote or co-wrote more than 1,700 pub­li­ca­tions and ar­ti­cles.

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