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Intelligent Machines

Brit d'Arbeloff, SM '61

Pioneering engineer advocates for women and the arts

The first woman to earn a mechanical-­engineering degree from Stanford University, Brit d’Arbeloff had a hard time getting a job—even though she graduated first in her class. Yet she did find work in rocketry back home in Chicago before moving to Cambridge for a job analyzing heating and cooling requirements for high-speed aircraft. Since she was frequently in the MIT engineering library for research anyway, she decided to earn a master’s degree. The mechanical-engineering course work went fine, but as a rare female engineering student, she could not get a faculty advisor to grant her access to research labs. Her thesis had to be based on theory, not practice. That experience did not leave a positive impression.

D’Arbeloff reëngaged with the Institute when her late husband, Alexander d’Arbeloff ‘49, chaired the MIT Corporation from 1996 to 2003. She became increasingly involved as a member of the Corporation, the Corporation Development Committee, and visiting committees for social sciences and for linguistics and philosophy. She and her husband established the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education to help turn innovative ideas about learning and residential life into reality.

Today, she is an MIT enthusiast contributing to a more creative campus experience as chair of the Council for the Arts. Her goal is “to get as many people involved in the arts program as possible,” d’Arbeloff says. “That is one of the things that has made MIT a very different place than when I was studying there. The other thing is having about half women. But I think the arts play a role in making MIT a much more exciting and creative place.”

An activist for women in engineering, she has balanced career, family, and volunteering. From 1964 to 1974, she took a career break to have four children, but she then returned to work as a programmer and systems analyst for a software firm that was soon acquired by Teradyne, the company her husband founded. After a stint there and five years co-managing a clothing boutique, she retired in 1990 to write fiction, volunteer, and stay close to her children and grandchildren.

“Right now MIT offers the best education in the world,” she says. “As more women get into engineering, we are getting into things that are really useful to the world—it isn’t just the next cool gadget.”

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