David M. Lee was born on January 20, 1931, in Rye, New York. He graduated from Harvard University in 1952. In April 1952, he entered the U.S. Army and served at various posts in the United States during the final stages of the Korean War. After his army stint, he entered the University of Connecticut where he obtained a Master of Science degree. He entered the Ph.D. program at Yale University in 1955 where he worked under Henry A. Fairbank. After graduating from Yale, he became a professor at Cornell University.
In 1972, he published his work on Helium-3 superfluidity with Robert C. Richardson and Doug Osheroff He also worked on the discovery of nuclear spin waves in spin polarized atomic hydrogen gas with Jack H. Freed.
He received the 1976 Sir Francis Simon Memorial Prize of the British Institute of Physics and the 1981 Oliver Buckley Prize of the American Physical Society along with Doug Osheroff and Robert Richardson for their superfluid 3He work. The trio received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1996 for this work.
Lee is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Lee's work:
When the temperature sinks on a cold winter's day water vapour becomes water and water becomes ice. These so-called phase transitions and the changed states of matter can be roughly described and understood with classical physics. What happens when the temperature falls is that the random heat movement in gases, liquids and solid bodies ceases. But the situation becomes entirely different when the temperature sinks further and approaches absolute zero, -273.15°C. In samples of liquid helium what is termed superfluidity occurs, a phenomenon that cannot be understood in terms of classical physics. When a liquid becomes superfluid its atoms suddenly lose all their randomness and move in a coordinated manner in each movement. This causes the liquid to lack all inner friction: It can overflow a cup, flow out through very small holes, and exhibits a whole series of other non-classical effects. Fundamental understanding of the properties of such a liquid requires an advanced form of quantum physics, and these very cold liquids are therefore termed quantum liquids. By studying the properties of quantum liquids in detail and comparing these with the predictions of quantum physics low-temperature, researchers are contributing valuable knowledge of the bases for describing matter at the microscopic level.
David M. Lee, Douglas D. Osheroff and Robert C. Richardson discovered at the beginning of the 1970s, in the low-temperature laboratory at Cornell University, that the helium isotope helium-3 can be made superfluid at a temperature only about two thousandths of a degree above absolute zero. This superfluid quantum liquid differs greatly from the one already discovered in the 1930s and studied at about two degrees (i.e. a thousand times) higher temperature in the normal helium isotope helium-4. The new quantum liquid helium-3 has very special characteristics. One thing these show is that the quantum laws of microphysics sometimes directly govern the behaviour of macroscopic bodies also.