Marie Curie and Mildred Dresselhaus, Inspirations to Women in Science

Summary of a talk given by Cherry Murray, Harvard University at the APS March Meeting, New Orleans, LA, March 16, 2017

My talk is dedicated to Mildred (Millie) Dresselhaus, (born November 11, 1930, and passed away February 20, 2017,) who was scheduled to give the talk in this time slot at the 2017 March Meeting session celebrating the 150th anniversary of Marie Curie’s birth entitled ”How Marie Curie got me into Condensed Matter Physics.” There are many parallels in life and impact on physics between Millie and Marie Curie (1867-1934.) Millie was an inspiration to all and especially to women in physics, just as Marie Curie was an inspiration to Millie. I will cover the parallels I find between Marie Curie and Millie since Ruth Howes will cover Marie Curie’s career in full detail later in the session. I will then give a brief summary of Millie’s life and career and note a few of her accomplishments.

Marie Slowdowska Curie was named the most famous scientist of her time in 1903, the year she won her first Nobel Prize, the first woman ever to do so. Earlier, she was one of two women graduate students in Europe, the first woman to earn a doctoral science degree in France, the first female professor in France, and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes (in Physics for the discovery of Radioactivity in 1903 and in Chemistry for the discovery of the element Radium in 1911.) She was certainly the “Queen of Radioactivity,” having discovered and named the spontaneous decay of elements completely unexpected by the scientific community at the time — and as a result, between Marie and her immediate family members there were four Nobel Prize winners.

Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus was called the “Queen of Carbon” in 2013, having made a career studying semi-metals and, indeed, lowly carbon — both considered uninteresting to the scientific community when she began her research on them. Millie also had a number of firsts: the first woman professor of electrical engineering at MIT, the first woman Institute Professor at MIT, the first person to win a solo Kavli Prize, the first woman to win an IEEE Medal of Honor. She had a prolific career with many other awards, authored over 1700 scientific papers, 8+ books, and mentored over 60 graduate students.

The young Marie Curie, Marya Sklodowska, was born in 1867 in Russian-controlled Warsaw, the youngest of five children, into a family of teachers with challenging finances. She lost both a sister and her mother to disease early in her life. She excelled in studies as a child, supported by her widowed father; was active in her teens in the underground counter–Russian-culture “Floating University,” learning physics in various soirees. After taking a job for 6 years as a governess in order to help earn money to help a sister through medical school in Paris, Marie ( as she then called herself ) enrolled in the Sorbonne at the University of Paris, the only university that allowed women. There, Marie met Pierre Curie, and they married in 1895. Pierre was especially supportive of Marie, left a promising line of his own research to collaborate on Marie’s radioactivity project and was her closest collaborator until his death in 1906. They had two daughters while Marie continued her research.

The young Millie Dresselhaus, Mildred Spiewak, was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1930, the younger child of Polish émigré parents in a low-income neighborhood. Millie excelled in her studies but attended poor schools. While in grade school Millie read the biography of Marie Curie and dreamed of being a scientist. Her brother Irving was a violin prodigy, and the family moved to Bronx for his lessons. Millie also took violin lessons from age 4-13, traveling alone by subway to Greenwich House School, where she heard about Hunter College High School, a public school for “intellectually gifted young ladies”. Millie studied hard and aced the entrance exam, attended Hunter High, learning physics from boys at Stuyvesant High, graduated top of her class in 1948, and then enrolled in Hunter College, the City College of New York (CCNY). Millie met Gene Dresselhaus in graduate school at the University of Chicago and married him in 1958, the year she defended her thesis on magnetism in superconductors. Gene, a theorist, was especially supportive of Millie’s research and her constant collaborator after 1960. They had one daughter and three sons while Millie continued her research.

When Millie was attending Hunter College, CCNY from 1948-1950, she overlapped for a year with Rosalyn Yalow, who taught her elementary physics and became a lifelong friend and mentor. Millie did experimental work at CCNY on metals. Rosalyn told Millie that she MUST become a researcher and go to a top graduate school, and wrote letters of recommendation for her. Rosalyn went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977.

Millie spent 1950 as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Cambridge. She then enrolled at Radcliffe to study physics but left in 1952 after a Master’s Degree to enroll at the University of Chicago at the age of 22, one of 11 entering graduate students — the only woman. Gene Dresselhaus was a fellow graduate student there.

At Chicago, Millie met and got to know Enrico Fermi, her hero, who taught her how to think like a physicist; and spent a year visiting with his family and walking each day to the University together with him in the early mornings, before he passed away suddenly in 1953.

Millie’s thesis advisor, Andrew Lawson, believed women had no place in science and told Millie this. Millie had to cobble together her apparatus out of old parts lying around. At the 1958 APS March Meeting, Millie presented experimental results from her thesis work on the microwave properties of a superconductor in a magnetic field inconsistent with the 1957 Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory. This attracted the interest of both John Bardeen and Bob Schrieffer, who later on was instrumental in getting Millie’s career started.

After Gene and Millie married in 1958, Gene accepted an offer as an assistant professor at Cornell University, and Millie was offered a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship there and joined Gene. Millie continued to work on the magnetic properties of superconductors and got to know Richard Feynman. A Cornell faculty member told Millie that no woman would ever be permitted to lecture to his engineering students. Gene and Millie’s daughter Marianne ( MIT ’81 ) was born in 1959.

At the end of Millie’s postdoc, Millie and Gene searched for jobs where there were no nepotism rules, and could find offers at only two places: IBM and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Lab. In 1960, they accepted offers in the Solid State Division at MIT Lincoln Lab headed at the time by Benjamin Lax. At the time Millie joined, there were 1000 men and two women employed as scientists and engineers by MIT Lincoln Lab. Millie was told to switch fields to the magneto-optical properties of materials, and chose to work in semimetals. The big excitement at the time was semiconductors, but Millie recalled in her later years that “there were advantages working in a less competitive research area while we had our babies.” They had another three children, all sons, from 1961 to 1964, for whom Millie took five days total off from work for their deliveries. Millie measured the magneto-optical properties of bismuth, graphite, and the group V semimetals; Gene did the electronic band structure calculations. In all they spent seven years laying the foundation of the physics of semimetals.

In 1967, Millie accepted the offer of an Abby Rockefeller Mauzé visiting professorship in electrical engineering at MIT. In 1968, she accepted the offer of a permanent professorship in electrical engineering — the first to a woman. In 1969, I was an entering freshman at MIT interested in physics and met Millie for the first time. She was an incredible inspiration and role model for me!

In 1973, Millie and Gene began to work on intercalation compounds in graphite, and noticed that stage 1 and stage 2 intercalation compounds have vastly different electronic properties — setting the stage for the physical understanding of graphene.

In 1980, Millie and Gene started a collaboration with Morinobu Endo on carbon fibers, and began experiments using laser ablation and carbon clusters — setting the stage for discovery of nanotubes and the fullerenes.

In 1983, Millie was offered a joint professorship in the MIT physics department, and in 1984 she became president of the American Physical Society (APS). In that year she discussed C60 with Richard Smalley, and began research on C60’s 200 infrared and Raman active vibrational modes.

In the 1990’s she began spectroscopy of single walled carbon nanotubes, and in 1991 she wrote an influential paper jointly with Fujita and Saito (controversial at the time) predicting the properties of single walled nanotubes depending on the orientation of the hexagons with respect to the nanotube axis, showing that the electronic properties could vary between semiconducting and metallic.

In 1992, Millie began research on thermoelectricity for energy harvesting, and in 1996 launched the field of low dimensional nanostructured semimetals. Millie became emerita, but maintained an active research program until her death.

Millie’s research career in semimetals and the intercalation of graphite laid the foundations for carbon as the miracle material of the 2000’s, as well as the foundations of nanoscience with fullerenes, nanotubes and graphene as examples. Semimetals, low dimensional semimetals in particular are now a burgeoning area of science and its applications.

Millie’s service to the science community was extensive: in 1984 she served as APS president, in 1998, as American Association for the Advancement of Science president, from 1996-2000 she was treasurer of the National Academy of Sciences, in 2000 she served as Director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, in 2003-2008 she served on the governing board of the American Institute of Physics. Millie was a mentor to all, especially to her 60+ graduate students, and she worked tirelessly to support women in science.

I’ll end with a partial listing of Millie’s accolades. In 1985, she was named Institute Professor at MIT. In 1990, she won the National Medal of Science, in 2004, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Founder’s Medal, in 2005 the Heinz Award, in 2008 the Oersted Medal, in 2009 the Vannevar Bush Award, in 2012 the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, in 2012 the Enrico Fermi Award, in 2013 the Materials Research Society Von Hippel Award, in 2014 the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in 2014 the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2015 the IEEE Medal of Honor. In addition Millie was awarded over 30 honorary degrees.

We will miss Millie, an inspiration to us all.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.