History Column

“Carbon Queen” Mildred Dresselhaus

By Michael Geselowitz, Senior Director, IEEE History Center

A few weeks ago (22 February) was the 5th anniversary of the death of IEEE Life Fellow Professor Mildred Dresselhaus.  Since March is Women’s History Month, and since a new biography has just come out (see below), it is a good time to remind readers of the accomplishments of this first woman to win the IEEE Medal of Honor.

Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus (née Spiewak) was born on 11 November 1930 in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Meyer and Ethel (Teichteil) Spiewak, Jewish immigrants from Poland.  Despite having to work to support the family during the depression, Millie excelled at academics and attended Hunter College High School and then Hunter College in Manhattan.  When Hunter, which had been a women’s college, opened its doors to returning GIs, Millie noticed that they (at least initially) could not compete against the women students in science classes, and this inoculated her against self-doubt that society has instilled in many women in STEM fields.  Having women role models and mentors at Hunter, such as future Medicine Nobel-Prize-winner Rosalyn Yalow, also helped.  Her bachelors degree in 1951 was in liberal arts, but she then pursued a variety of postgraduate studies in physics, eventually landing at the University of Chicago, where she wrote her dissertation on superconductors under Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, and met her husband, fellow solid-state physicist Gene Dresselhaus.

Both Millie and Gene were offered positions at MIT, and Millie went on to 57-year career there, becoming a tenured full professor, and the first woman to be named Institute Professor (1983).  Her research focused on carbon-based nanotubes, but she became know for her teaching and her mentoring of other women.  From there she moved to becoming a major international figure promoting women in STEM.  For these activities she received too many honors to list in a short article; besides the IEEE Medal of Honor (2015), the most notable is probably U.S. Presidential Medal  of Freedom (2014).  Mildred Dresselhaus died on 22 February 2017 in Cambridge, Mass., survived by her husband, four children, and five grandchildren.

For those who want more information, there is a an oral history of Prof. Dresselhaus on the History Center’s Engineering & Technology History Wiki, an article in IEEE Spectrum from when she won the IEEE Medal of Honor, and IEEE Press has just this month released a new full-length biography, Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus.


Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., is staff director at the IEEE History Center. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: http://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.htmlFor more articles by History Center staff, visit their publications page at: http://ethw.org/Archives:Books_and_Archival_Publications or visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: http://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.html. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

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Michael Geselowitz, Ph.D.

Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., is staff director at the IEEE History Center. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. For more articles by History Center staff, visit their publications page or visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

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