MARJORIE LEE BROWNE, the third African American in US to earn a Ph.D in Mathematics.
“If I had to live my life again, I wouldn’t do anything else. I love mathematics.”
*Illustration by Matteo Farinella*
Black women has been consistently underrepresented in the number of advanced degrees awarded in STEM fields: During the 39 years between 1973 and 2012, just 66 black women achieved Ph.Ds in physics while the count reached up to 22,172 for white men. In computer science, black female Ph.D.s doubled from eight to 16 between 2002 and 2012, the same period of time that saw white men jump from 198 to 436. Unfortunately this pattern still holds true today in 2017. Women and African-Americans (and other ethnic groups) are the minority in STEM, and these underrepresented groups often face discrimination and traditional barriers in their career. Nonetheless, there are many women who defied the stereotypes with their persistence and hard work.
Marjorie Lee Browne, the third African American in the US to earn a Ph.D in Mathematics, was one such lady.
Browne grew up loving mathematics. Her father, Lawrence Johnson Lee, known to be a math whiz himself, shared his passion for mathematics with both his children since they were young and encouraged them to pursue mathematics as a profession. Strongly believing in education as the key to success, Lee made sure his children were provided an education in spite of the harsh racial climate, and Browne was sent to LeMoyne High School, a private school for black students. During her school years, she nurtured her love for mathematics under the guidance of “excellent teachers” (as she once mentioned in an interview) and became known for her talent in mathematics. In addition, she also proved her tennis skills as she won the Memphis City Women's Tennis Singles Championship.
Moving on after high school, Browne managed to afford college in Washington D.C through various scholarships, jobs and loans despite the Depression, and she graduated cum laude from Howard University with a Bachelor’s in Mathematics in 1935. After graduation, she immediately started teaching at a private secondary school, Gilbert Academy, New Orleans, Louisiana, exclusively for black students. However, as she desired to pursue higher mathematics, Browne left the teaching job after a year and enrolled at the University of Michigan, one of the few institutions that admitted African American students at the time. She earned her Master’s degree in Mathematics in 1939 and her doctorate in 1949.
Yet, even as the third black woman to earn a Ph.D in mathematics, Browne was unable to keep a teaching job at a research institution. She thus turned to secondary school education and worked with secondary school teachers to teach modern math. In 1951, she joined the North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), Durham, as a faculty member and soon, became the Chair of the Mathematics Department, a position she retained from 1951 to 1970. She focused on encouraging math education for minorities and women, and often offered financial support to her students to pursue higher education. As an educator, she was described as exacting, challenging and caring. One former student said, “She took responsibility for all the mathematics majors. Graduating from college was not in question for all of us because she would check our grades and advise all of us. She was a person that you could admire.”
While excelling in her teaching career, Browne worked tirelessly in pursuing advanced mathematics. Between 1952 and 1953, she won a Ford Foundation fellowship to study combinatorial topology at Cambridge University and travelled throughout western Europe for her research. She studied computing and numerical analysis at the University of California, Los Angeles, under the National Science Foundation Faculty Fellowship. She received grants to study differential topology at Columbia University during 1965 to 1966.
Browne died in 1979 in her home in Durham, North Carolina, still at work on theoretical papers.
After her death, four of her students established the Marjorie Lee Browne Scholarship in North Carolina Central University to support students in pursuing mathematics and computer science, just as she once did for them.
Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary