New York native Mildred Dresselhaus née Spiewak, known as Millie, was born in 1930 to immigrant parents and grew up during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, living in the Bronx during that time was very dangerous and low-income neighborhoods didn’t harbor the best public schools. However, Millie was self taught and passed the entry exam and enrolled in Hunter College High School. Eventually, she went on to earn her undergraduate degree at Hunter College. Millie thought after college she would become a schoolteacher, but her mind changed after taking a modern physics course from Rosalyn Yalow. For those of you who don’t know of Rosalyn, she is the recipient of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, alongside Solomon Berson, for their work on radioimmunoassays and is the second woman to win that prize. Millie then went on to study a year at Harvard before enrolling in the graduate studies program at the University of Chicago at only 22. In June of 1960, Millie and her husband Gene accepted positions at the Lincoln Laboratory operated by M.I.T.
Dr. Dresselhaus investigated electronic structure of semi-metals and high magnetic fields and was invited to join M.I.T. permanently. She became an Abby Rockefeller Mauzé visiting professor and had the ability to teach and train emerging graduate students. Here, her research team focused on physical properties associated with electrons, phonons, and the electron-phonon interaction. Dr. Dresselhaus was nicknamed the “Queen of Carbon” by those in her field and became an advocate for women in science. When she defended her thesis and became a doctor, women comprised only 2% of the physics society. She was the first woman at M.I.T. to become a full professor and worked hard to support and endorse women to follow in her footsteps. Millie was one of the organizers of the first Women’s Forum at M.I.T., which helped women learn about the opportunities available for women in science.
Dr. Dresselhaus co-authored at least 1,700 papers, along with writing eight books. Millie was appointed president of the American Physics Society in 1984. She was the first woman to be awarded the US National Medal of Science in engineering in 1990, is the first solo recipient of the Kavli Prize in 2012, recipient of the 2014 Presidential Metal of Freedom, and the first woman to be awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor in 2015. Dr. Dresselhaus, Institute Professor Emerita of Physics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at M.I.T., passed away on February 20, 2017 at age 86. She is survived by her husband, four children, along with their families, as well as, her beloved students.