Physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, the daughter of impoverished Polish Jewish immigrants whose pioneering research into the thermal and electrical properties of carbon earned her the nickname “Queen of Carbon,” has died.
Dresselhaus, who also was an advocate for women in science fields, died Monday at 86.
Her research was foundational to the field called nanoscience, in which matter is manipulated at an atomic and molecular level. Her pioneering work earned her the $1 million Kavli Prize in Nanoscience in 2012, the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and IEEE Medal of Honor, the highest award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Dresselhaus had gained wider fame in recent weeks with her starring role in a television commercial promoting General Electric’s efforts to promote women in science. The commercial, titled “What If Scientists Were Celebrities?” imagines a world in which young girls dress up as Dresselhaus, glossy magazines feature her on their covers and gossip columns keep tabs on her comings and goings.
Abbi Jacobson, the Jewish actress who stars in “Broad City,” appears briefly in the ad as a Dresselhaus fan.
Dresselhaus, nee Mildred Spiewak, was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in 1930 and grew up in the Bronx.
“The Bronx, I remember, was a very poor neighborhood, but that was all that immigrants could afford at that time,” she recalled in a 2013 interview. “Life was tough. I grew up — my father didn’t have a job, but there weren’t too many people who did have jobs.”
The prestigious Bronx High School of Science was not open to girls in her day, so she attended the selective Hunter College High School in Manhattan. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Hunter College, where she took an elementary physics class with another daughter of Jewish immigrants, Rosalyn Yalow, a future Nobel laureate in medicine. Dresselhaus often said it was Yalow who pushed her to go down the path of science and physics at a time when educated women were expected to become secretaries, nurses or teachers.
Dresselhaus went on to earn a master’s degree from Radcliffe College and a doctorate from the University of Chicago.
Two years after her marriage to fellow physicist Gene Dresselhaus in 1958, both were offered faculty positions at MIT. In 1968 she became a professor at MIT, where her research led to advances in carbon-based materials used in solid-state electronics.
As early as the mid-1970s she became a public advocate for women in engineering and science, and mentored countless young women during her time at MIT. Later in her career, MIT named her institute professor emerita, its highest distinction, and she continued teaching and researching until shortly before she died.
“I’ve been lucky,” she said in 2013. “I’ve been at a place that’s a meritocracy. It doesn’t really matter that much what your gender is if you do the work well. I think women benefit from being in places and having positions where the quality of work is the criteria, not what you look like. Not every place is like that.”
Dresselhaus is survived by her husband, their four children and five grandchildren.
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.