Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research into the fundamental properties of carbon helped transform it into the superstar of modern materials science and the nanotechnology industry, died on Monday in Cambridge, Mass. She was 86.
Her death, at Mount Auburn Hospital, was confirmed by her granddaughter Leora Cooper. No cause was given.
Nicknamed the Queen of Carbon in scientific circles, Dr. Dresselhaus was renowned for her efforts to promote the cause of women in science. She was the first woman to secure a full professorship at M.I.T., in 1968, and she worked vigorously to ensure that she would not be the last.
In 1971, she and a colleague organized the first Women’s Forum at M.I.T. to explore the roles of women in science. Two years later she won a Carnegie Foundation grant to further that cause.
“I met Millie on my interview for a faculty job in 1984,” said Lorna Gibson, now a professor of materials science and engineering. “M.I.T. was quite intimidating then for a new female, but Millie made it all seem possible, even effortless. I knew it wouldn’t be, but she was such an approachable intellectual powerhouse, she made it seem that way.”
Today, women make up about 22 percent of M.I.T.’s faculty.
“Millie was very straightforward, no frilly stuff, and I loved that about her,” said Jacqueline K. Barton, a professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. “She was always warm and supportive to me, but I also had the feeling it was important to let her know about my last good experiment.”
Dr. Dresselhaus’s own story was one of struggle and perseverance. The daughter of impoverished Jewish immigrants from Poland, she grew up humbly in the Bronx, sometimes on public assistance, but excelled in school — winning scholarships, finding a mentor in a future Nobel laureate and earning advanced degrees at leading universities.
This month, Dr. Dresselhaus found a measure of popular culture fame at the center of a General Electric TV commercial that boasts of a corporate commitment to hiring more women.
In the ad, little girls play with Millie Dresselhaus dolls and dress up in Millie Dresselhaus wigs and sweaters. Parents name their newborn girls Millie, and journalists breathlessly seek the next Dresselhaus sighting. Dr. Dresselhaus appears in the commercial as well.
“What if we treated great female scientists like they were stars?” the narrator says. “What if Millie Dresselhaus were as famous as any celebrity?”
For its part, carbon is as capricious as any celebrity. It is the graphite of a pencil, worn down by a simple doodle. Arrayed in a three-dimensional crystal, it is a diamond, the hardest substance known.
Dr. Dresselhaus used resonant magnetic fields and lasers to map out the electronic energy structure of carbon. She investigated the traits that emerge when carbon is interwoven with other materials: Stitch in some alkali metals, for example, and carbon can become a superconductor, in which an electric current meets virtually no resistance.
Dr. Dresselhaus was a pioneer in research on fullerenes, also called buckyballs: soccer-ball-shaped cages of carbon atoms that can be used as drug delivery devices, lubricants, filters and catalysts.
She conceived the idea of rolling a single-layer sheet of carbon atoms into a hollow tube, a notion eventually realized as the nanotube — a versatile structure with the strength of steel but just one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair.
She worked on carbon ribbons, semiconductors, nonplanar monolayers of molybdenum sulfide, and the scattering and vibrational effects of tiny particles introduced into ultrathin wires.
She published more than 1,700 scientific papers, co-wrote eight books and gathered a stack of accolades as fat as a nanotube is fine.
Dr. Dresselhaus was awarded the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (bestowed by President Barack Obama), the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, the Enrico Fermi prize and dozens of honorary doctorates. She also served as president of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and worked in the Department of Energy in the Clinton administration.
“Every morning she’d leave the house at 5:30, the first car in the parking lot every day, and everyone she collaborated with she viewed as family,” said Ms. Cooper, Dr. Dresselhaus’s granddaughter, who is a graduate student at M.I.T. “Her life and her science were intertwined.”
She was born Mildred Spiewak on Nov. 11, 1930, in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, the daughter of the former Ethel Teichtheil and Meyer Spiewak.
“My early years were spent in a dangerous, multiracial, low-income neighborhood,” she wrote in a biographical sketch. “My early elementary school memories up through ninth grade are of teachers struggling to maintain class discipline with occasional coverage of academics.”
For all the family’s financial hardships, Mildred and her older brother, Irving, became gifted violinists who won scholarships to music schools.
From age 6 on, Mildred took the subway long distances on her own, burdened, as she recalled, with books and musical instruments as she stumbled down steps. When somebody told her about Hunter High School, the highly selective public school in Manhattan, she wrote away for old entry exams, studied them and then aced the test.
There, her predilections were clear: “In math and science,” the yearbook declared, Mildred Spiewak is “second to none.”
After graduating she enrolled at Hunter College, where she intended to become a schoolteacher until she took an elementary physics class with Rosalyn Yalow, a future Nobel laureate, who urged her to consider a career in science.
“She was a very domineering person,” Dr. Dresselhaus said in an interview in 2012. “She had definite ideas about everything.”
Dr. Yalow, she wrote in the biographical sketch, “became a lifelong mentor.”
Dr. Dresselhaus earned a master’s degree from Radcliffe College and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where she studied under the celebrated physicist Enrico Fermi. She lived in his neighborhood, and every morning they would walk to the university together talking science. The conversations were thrilling, she said, and they kept her going through a grueling program from which 75 percent of the students dropped out.
At Chicago she met Gene Dresselhaus, a fellow physicist, and married him. He survives her, as do her four children and five grandchildren.
Dr. Dresselhaus and her husband both ended up at M.I.T. in 1960, one of the few places willing to hire husband-and-wife scientists. There she worked at Lincoln Laboratory, a defense research center, where she was one of two women on a scientific staff of 1,000. “We were pretty much invisible,” she later recalled.
One reason Dr. Dresselhaus said she chose to study carbon was its relative unpopularity. “I was happy to work on a project that most people thought was hard and not that interesting,” she said. “If one day I had to be at home with a sick child, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
A version of this article appears in print on February 24, 2017, on Page B15 of the New York edition with the headline: Mildred Dresselhaus, Who Pioneered Revolution in Carbon Use, Dies at 86.