While growing up poor in New York City in the 1940s, Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus heard through friends about Hunter College High School, which only admitted girls who had passed rigorous tests. “I wrote away for old examinations,” she recalled in an autobiographical essay, “and through self-study I was able to pass the examinations, to gain entry to this special high school.”
Thus began an academic journey that took her to the top rungs of science and brought her a shelf full of awards, including, in 2014, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Along the way, she notched a series of firsts in science and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with which she was associated for 57 years, since she began working at Lincoln Laboratory in 1960.
Her work included deciphering the secrets of carbon. For her research, she was the first woman awarded the National Medal of Science in Engineering; the first sole recipient of the prestigious Kavli Prize, which carries a $1 million cash award; the first woman at MIT to become a full tenured professor; and the first woman named an institute professor, a title typically held by no more than a dozen MIT faculty at a time.
Dr. Dresselhaus died in Mount Auburn Hospital on Monday from complications of a stroke she suffered while at her lab. The Arlington resident, 86, had never stopped working.
“Here’s the interesting thing about women researchers: Once they hit their stride, they don’t want to stop,” she told Science magazine in 2014, after learning she would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Men’s careers wind down when they reach their 70s,” she added. “Women don’t retire so quickly.”
Nicknamed the “Queen of Carbon,” Dr. Dresselhaus was known simply as Millie as she made important discoveries about the electronic structure of semi-metals. In announcing her death, MIT said she “was particularly well known for her work on nanomaterials and other nanostructural systems based on layered materials.”
Her leadership on condensed matter physics, meanwhile, brought her the Department of Energy’s Enrico Fermi Award — named for the influential physicist she encountered during her doctoral work at the University of Chicago. She also formerly directed the Energy Department’s science office.
“Fermi is the key to the whole story,” Dr. Dresselhaus said of her career in a 2012 interview with the Kavli Foundation. “What I learned from him was the importance of having a very broad understanding of science, so you can take advantage of new science opportunities so that you can really serve society.”
They both were early risers and often walked into laboratory buildings together at daybreak. His mentorship was important in Chicago, where she faced blatant sexism, as she did at other stops in her career. At the university, “My adviser didn’t know what I was working on until two weeks before I submitted my Ph.D. thesis,” she told the Kavli Foundation. “He never talked with me because he didn’t think women should be in science.”
MIT and Lincoln Laboratory were marginally more accommodating. “I took a total of five days off for the birth of my three sons,” she told Science magazine.
Along with her groundbreaking research, Dr. Dresselhaus was a strong advocate for gender equity and a lifelong mentor for women in the sciences. In the early 1970s, she helped organize MIT’s first Women’s Forum.
“Science still isn’t so friendly to women,” said her granddaughter Leora Cooper, a graduate student in physical chemistry at MIT. “As I was questioning whether to stay in science, she helped me learn to stick up for myself and fight back. By being a role model, she encouraged me to not just see the changes that needed to be made, but to start making them.”
The daughter of Ethel and Meyer Spiewak, both immigrants from Poland, Mildred Spiewak was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in the Bronx. Until she tested into Hunter College High, she endured classrooms where teachers struggled “to maintain class discipline with occasional coverage of academics.”
Her introduction to more intellectually ambitious students came through her older brother, who was a violin prodigy. His talents led to free lessons for her, and she became an adept musician, too. “I learned to read music before I learned to read script,” she told the Globe in 2007.
After high school, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, where among her professors was Rosalyn Yalow, a future Nobel Prize-winner “who strongly encouraged me to become a physicist, and she became a lifelong mentor,” Dr. Dresselhaus recalled in her autobiographical essay.
Before turning 23, she had received a master’s from Radcliffe College, had spent a year at Cambridge University in England as a Fulbright fellow, and had arrived at the University of Chicago. There she met Gene Dresselhaus, a physicist she married in 1958, the year she graduated with a doctorate in physics. After two years of post-doctoral work at Cornell University, they went to Lincoln Laboratory, one of few places that would hire them both.
In 1967, she became the Abby Rockefeller Mauze visiting professor at MIT. Promoted to full professor of electrical engineering a few months later, she added a physics department appointment in 1983. During her early years, “all the women faculty could fit around a very small table,” she once told the Globe.
She never fully retired — “I’m sort of retiring. Eventually,” she said in 2007. Most recently, she was an institute professor emerita — still publishing, still going to her lab. According to MIT, she coauthored eight books and some 1,700 papers.
L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, wrote in an e-mail to the institute’s community that Dr. Dresselhaus was “a giant — an exceptionally creative scientist and engineer who was also a delightful human being.”
“Millie’s dedication to research was unparalleled, and her enthusiasm was infectious,” Anantha Chandrakasan, a professor who is head of MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said in a statement.
Dr. Dresselhaus, who two years ago was the first woman to be awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor, was such an inspirational figure that General Electric featured her in a commercial, released a couple of weeks ago, that imagined a world in which a scientist like her was a celebrity. In the TV ad, children dress up like her and treasure Millie Dresselhaus dolls; she is featured in Facebook status updates and passersby ask to pose with her for selfies.
A service has been held for Dr. Dresselhaus, who in addition to her husband, Gene, and her granddaughter Leora leaves her daughter, Marianne Dresselhaus Cooper of Palo Alto, Calif.; three sons, Carl of Belmont, Paul of Louisville, Colo., and Eliot of France; and four other grandchildren.
“She was an amazing person,” Leora said.
Though Dr. Dresselhaus was one of the nation’s most honored scientists, “The fancy things on her resume were there as placeholders,” Leora added. “She wanted to be there for her students and really wanted to help people to succeed. She changed the lives of so many people.”
And for women pursuing science in academia, Dr. Dresselhaus had firm advice: “Don’t give up.”
“Once you are on the faculty, you should advance at the same speed,” she added in the Science magazine interview. “Develop connections with the women who are already in such positions. Be confident. Apply.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.