IEEE Mourns the Loss of Carbon Science Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus

The MIT professor was the first woman to receive the IEEE Medal of Honor

23 February 2017

The field of nanoscience lost a member of royalty this week. IEEE Life Fellow Mildred Dresselhaus, whose pioneering contributions earned her the nickname “Queen of Carbon,” died on 20 February at the age of 86.

Two years ago Dresselhaus became the first woman to receive the IEEE Medal of Honor, the organization’s highest award, “for leadership and contributions across many fields of science and engineering.” She conducted research in carbon and provided a better understanding of graphite intercalation compounds. She also was an advocate for women in engineering.

“We were thrilled to meet Millie at the IEEE Honors Ceremony. She was so friendly and gracious, and she had an exuberance that was infectious,” says Lynn Frassetti, IEEE senior awards presentation and communications specialist. “It was evident that she was a role model and mentor to students and an inspiration to women engineers. Millie’s passion for achieving success no matter the challenges was an inherent quality that we should all strive to possess.”

BREAKING BOUNDARIES

Dresselhaus was born in 1930 in New York City to Polish and Jewish immigrants. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Hunter College, in New York City, then earned a master’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

In 1967 she became a professor at MIT, where she conducted pathfinding research in carbon and its thermal and electrical properties. She used magnetoreflection spectroscopy to determine carbon’s graphite band structure—which led to the current band model for graphite. Her discoveries relating to the composition, structure, and properties of graphite encouraged new research into single-atom-thick graphene, which now has applications in high-speed electronics circuits and systems.

Dresselhaus made important contributions in the late 1970s to understanding the structure of graphite intercalation compounds. She studied fullerenes and carbon nanotubes in the early 1990s before those structures were well known. MIT named her institute professor emerita, its highest distinction, and she continued teaching and researching until shortly before she died.

Her groundbreaking work wasn’t limited to the laboratory. In the mid-1970s she became a public advocate for women in engineering and science. Her 1975 article “Some Personal Views on Engineering Education for Women,” published in IEEE Transactions on Education, proved to be a valuable account of the psychological and social challenges facing women in a male-dominated field. The article also stressed the importance of role models for female engineering students. Dresselhaus herself mentored countless young women during her time at MIT.

She was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 1979 “for contributions to the understanding of electronic properties of semiconductors, semimetals, and metals, and to electrical engineering education.” A member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, she received numerous awards including the 2014 U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

To learn more about her life and career, and to read a transcript of an oral history conducted in 2013, visit the Engineering Technology History Wiki.

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