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Mildred Dresselhaus is the first female professor to teach electrical engineering and physics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research with single-wall carbon tubes earned her title, “The Queen of Carbon.” She also led many breakthroughs in the new field of magneto-optics while using gap semiconductors. Dr. Dresselhaus is the recipient of many awards, including the National Medal of Science and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Youth and Family

Mildred S. Dresselhaus was born on November 11, 1930, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York City.[1] Her parents were poor immigrants from Poland and the family survived on welfare.[2] The Dresselhaus family moved to the Bronx in New York City when Millie was around four years old. It was the middle of the Great Depression and her father could not find work, so they continued to receive relief checks.[3]

Millie Dresselhaus began playing the violin close to the same time the family moved to the Bronx. Teachers believed her brother to be a musical prodigy and she followed in his footsteps. Her talent earned her a music school scholarship and she met high-achieving children that pushed her to do better.[4]

Education and Marriage

Hunter High, an academically advanced high school, accepted Dresselhaus after she passed the entrance exam. The school focused mostly on liberal arts, but she also took classes and nurtured an interest in science and math. She graduated from Hunter High and automatically enrolled at Hunter College. The college focused on education and training new teachers for New York City.[5]

Mildred S. Dresselhaus first started worked with superconductors at the University of Chicago.

Rosalyn Yalow, her physics teacher and a future Nobel Prize winner, supported her interest in science during a time when most women took jobs as secretaries, nurses, or school teachers.[6]

In 1951, Dresselhaus graduated with a Bachelor of Science with honors.[7] She then applied and won a Fulbright Fellowship. She transferred to Cambridge University in England and her academic world opened up. She took classes on many subjects, but decided to pursue physics.[8]

Dresselhaus returned to finish her studies at Cambridge, Massachusetts’s Radcliffe College and graduated in 1953. She started a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, studying superconductors. She met another solid-state researcher named Gene Dresselhaus. She wrote her thesis on superconductors before graduating and marrying Gene in 1958.[9] They produced their first child in 1959.[10]

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In 1960, Mildred and Gene Dresselhaus accepted faculty positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).[11] Millie Dresselhaus worked on gap semiconductors in the emerging field of magneto-optics while at Lincoln Lab rather than the standard semiconductors being used by most other researchers. She worked in Lincoln Lab for seven years in which she bore three more children.[12]

When the Rockefeller family donated money for a female professor to work at MIT through the Abby Mauze Rockefeller fund, someone nominated Dr. Dresselhaus for the role. She accepted since her male superiors lacked sympathy for a working mother and established a new rule that all employees must arrive at 8:00 am[13]. In 1967, she began teaching courses in the rapidly changing field of solid-state physics.[14] She made significant breakthroughs in defining the structure of graphite intercalation compounds during the 1970s.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Dresselhaus experimented with carbon nanotubes and fullerenes well before their confirmed existence. She calculated the electronic structure of the nanotubes and discovered the unique symmetry within single-wall nanotubes. All these grand contributions earned her the nickname, the “Queen of Carbon.”

Scientists continue to use her work as a base for researching single-wall carbon nanotubes through Raman spectroscopy. Dr. Dresselhaus’s modern exploration of carbon nanotubes and their semiconductive properties pave the way for new discoveries in the field of nanotechnology.[15]

Advocating for Women in Science

Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus advocated for women engineer role models for young female scientists while fulfilling that role herself.

During the 1970s, Mildred Dresselhaus began publicly advocating to increase the number of women entering science, engineering, mathematic, and technological fields. Many U.S. women began seeking degrees in engineering and Dr. Dresselhaus sought to increase female access to these careers. She wrote and published an article called Some Personal Views on Engineering Education for Women in 1975.

The text remains an accurate and a necessary testament to the social and psychological obstacles women face in a traditionally male field. It also highlighted the need for women role models in engineering disciplines.[16]

Later Career, Honors, and Awards

Dr. Mildred S. Dresselhaus joined the American Physical Society and served as its president in 1984. She began teaching Physics at MIT as well in 1983 and became an Institute Professor in 1985.[17] She held these positions until retiring in 2005 after 55 years of researching and teaching.[18]

In 1985, Dresselhaus joined the National Academy of Sciences and in 1998 she served as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1990, she was awarded the National Medal of Science. The American Physical Society honored her with the Nicholson Medal in 2000 and she received the Weizmann Institute’s Millennial Lifetime Achievement Award for her countless contributions to solid-state physics.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) granted Dr. Millie Dresselhaus their Founders Medal in 2004 and the American Physical Society bestowed another award, the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize, on her in 2008. In 2009, she won the ACS’s Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters’ Kavil Prize for Neuroscience in 2012. The Materials Research Society honored her with the Arthur R. von Hippel Award in 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama recognized Dr. Mildren Dresselhaus’s many achievements in physics with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Most recently, the IEE granted her their Medal of Honor in 2015.[19]



Dresselhaus, M. (2013, July 11). Mildred Dresselhaus, an oral history conducted in 2013 by Kelsey Irvin. Interview by K. Irvin. IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2015, September 3). Faculty - MILDRED S. DRESSELHAUS. MIT Department of Physics.[1]

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (NASL). (2012). The Kavli Prize - Biography - Nanoscience 2012 - Mildred S. Dresselhaus.[2]

United Engineering Foundation. (2015). Mildred Dresselhaus - Biography. Engineering and Technology History Wiki (ETHW).[3]


  1. Dresselhaus, 2013
  2. NASL, 2012
  3. Dresselhaus, 2013
  4. NASL, 2012
  5. Dresselhaus, 2013
  6. NASL, 2012
  7. United Engineering Foundation, 2015
  8. Dresselhaus, 2013
  9. United Engineering Foundation, 2015
  10. Dresselhaus, 2013
  11. United Engineering Foundation, 2015
  12. Dresselhaus, 2013
  13. NASL, 2012
  14. Dresselhaus, 2013
  15. United Engineering Foundation, 2015
  16. Dresselhaus, 2013
  17. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015
  18. Dresselhaus, 2013
  19. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015

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