Monday, September 15, 2008

Marjorie Lee Browne: mathematician and educator

Last week the James Logan High School (Union City, CA) Courier posted* an interesting article about Marjorie Lee Browne, one of the first two African-American woman to receive a doctoral degree in mathematics the United States:

Browne was born in Tennessee in 1914. Her mother died when she was only two years old, and she was raised by her stepmother, Mary Taylor Lee, and her father, Lawrence Johnson Lee. Her father, a railway postal clerk, was also a "math whiz" who shared his passion for mathematics with his children. She attended LeMoyne High School, a private Methodist school started after the Civil War to offer education for African-Americans.
According to an interview she gave shortly before her death, mathematics was a comfort to her when she was growing up:
"I always, always, always liked mathematics. As a child I was rather introverted, and as far back as I can remember I liked mathematics . . . I could do it alone."
After completing her dissertation at the University of Michigan, Browne joined the faculty at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), serving as department head from 1951-1970. In fact, for 25 years she was the only instructor in the NCCU math department who had a PhD. Her profile at Biographies of Women Mathematicians notes that she not only pursued her own research, but also was able to secure funding for the university's mathematics program for secondary school teachers.
In addition to her own grants and fellowships to pursue mathematical studies, Browne received several grants to support the teaching of mathematics at North Carolina Central University. This institution became the first predominantly Black institution to be awarded an NSF Institute for secondary teachers of mathematics, a program Browne directed for 13 summers. In 1960, through her efforts, NCCU received a grant from IBM for the support of academic computing. In 1969 she obtained for her department the first Shell Grant for awards to outstanding mathematics students.
That grant from IBM brought her department one of the first computers in academic computing, almost certainly the first at a historically black college. But her devotion to education was more than just bringing in grants. She took a personal interest in teaching, and, in the last years of her life used her own money to help gifted students pursue their education in mathematics.

Despite the discrimination against both African-Americans and women in the world of mathematics, Browne received fellowships to study combinatorial topology at Cambridge University, differential topology at Columbia University, and computing and numerical analysis at UCLA.

Browne died in 1979 at the age of 65. Today there is a scholarship in her honor at NCCU for students in mathematics, and the University of Michigan Department of Mathematics hold an annual Dr. Marjorie Lee Browne Colloquium as part of the universities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

Additional information:

(via Terra Sigillata)

* Yes, the article is pretty much just copied and pasted from Wikipedia, but I think it's great that high school students are interested enough in the topic of women in mathematics to cover it.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for picking up on my brief post! You did a much better job than I so thanks for doing so. What a tremendous story.

At least the HS students did attribute their post to Wikipedia right at the outset. I agree that their intentions were all the best.