Marjorie Lee Browne was god-gifted genius, who dreamt of making it big in the subject of mathematics, right from childhood. Being inspired and supported by both of her parents, she acquired her math skills from her father, who himself was popular in his area as a ‘math wizard’ and passed on his love for the subject to his daughter. She is best remembered as one of the first few females in the United States to have been awarded with a doctorate degree in mathematics in her race, thereby becoming a pioneer for African-American women mathematicians. During her working years, she continued to pursue her studies, and inspired and provided support to aspiring young mathematical whiz kids, in terms of both finances and teaching. Apart from getting scholarships and fellowships from some of the most reputed universities across the world to undertake research programs in mathematics, she also received grants for mathematics teaching support at the North Carolina Central University, an institution that she was associated with till her death. Despite the discrimination and hatred faced by African-Americans, especially women, she went ahead to excel in the world of mathematics due to her willpower, strong mind and passion for the subject.
Childhood & Early Life
Marjorie Lee Browne was born on September 9, 1914 in Memphis, Tennessee, United States, as the daughter of Lawrence Johnson Lee, a railway postal clerk, and Mary Taylor Lee.
Her father encouraged her to take mathematics seriously, due to his personal liking for the subject and numbers, as he had also attended two years at college, something rare for a black man in those days.
After her mother’s sudden death in 1916, her father married Lottie Lee, a school teacher, who looked after her upbringing.
She completed her schooling from LeMoyne High School, a private Methodist school for African-Americans, becoming a math enthusiast and a popular tennis player.
She, later, enrolled at Howard University, Washington D.C., by combining loans and scholarships, and completed her graduation with distinction in 1935, majoring in mathematics.
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After graduation, she immediately took up a teaching job at a private secondary school, Gilbert Academy, New Orleans, Louisiana, exclusively for black students, which she left after a year.
Being more inclined towards earning higher education, she enrolled at the University of Michigan which accepted African-Americans unlike other institutions which did not, and obtained her Masters degree in mathematics in 1939.
She started teaching at the black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in 1942 while working on her doctorate project at the University of Michigan during summers.
In 1947, she became a teaching fellow, thus giving full-time to her dissertation and receiving her doctorate degree in mathematics in 1949. She was among the first African-American women to make such an achievement.
She wrote her doctorate theses on the topic ‘Studies of One Parameter Subgroups of Certain Topological and Matrix Groups’ under the supervision of renowned mathematical physicist, George Yuri Rainich.
She was more interested into spreading the importance of modern math and encouraging minorities and women to study mathematics rather than taking up a plain teaching job at a research institution.
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.
It was her constant desire for learning that enabled her to pursue further education through grants and scholarships. She studied combinatorial topology at Cambridge University through a Ford Foundation fellowship during 1952-53.
She studied computing and numerical analysis at the University of California, Los Angeles, under the National Science Foundation Faculty Fellowship.
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She received grants to study differential topology at Columbia University during 1965-66.
Besides being the department Chair, she held various esteemed positions at the college - Principal Investigator, Coordinator of the mathematics section, and Lecturer at the Summer Institute for secondary school science and mathematics teachers.
Interestingly, there was no other staff member, except Browne, in her department to have a doctorate degree during her first 25 years.
During her 30 year tenure at the college, she took up classes for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, teaching for about 15 hours a week, oversaw ten Masters thesis and continued her research in mathematics.
Marjorie wrote a paper on the significance of topological properties and the relations between certain classical groups titled ‘A Note on the Classical Groups’ which was published in the American Mathematics Monthly, in 1955.
Under her able guidance, the college became the first black institution in the United States to be granted funds for the establishment of National Science Foundation Institute for secondary teachers of mathematics.
She penned four sets of lecture notes - Sets, Logic, and Mathematical Thought (1957), Introduction to Linear Algebra (1959), Elementary Matrix Algebra (1969), and Algebraic Structures (1974), which were used exclusively by this institute.
She wrote and received a $60,000 grant from IBM to install an electronic digital computer center, in 1960, at the North Carolina College – the first at a black school, on seeing the importance of computer science in the growing tech-world.
She used her earned money to finance gifted mathematics students and helped them with their higher education. Some prominent students include Joseph Battle, Asamoah Nkwanta, William Fletcher, and Nathan Simms.
Awards & Achievements
The North Carolina Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCCTM) honored the first W.W. Rankin Memorial Award to Browne in 1974, for her contribution in the field of mathematics.
She served as a member of various educational boards, such as Women’s Research Society, American Mathematical Society, International Congress of Mathematicians, and Mathematical Association of America.
Personal Life & Legacy
Marjorie Lee Browne died of a heart attack on October 19, 1979 at her home in Durham, North Carolina, aged 65.
The Marjorie Lee Browne Trust Fund was established by four of her students at North Carolina Central University. The Marjorie Lee Browne Scholarship and Marjorie Lee Browne Distinguished Alumni Lecture Series are funded by this Trust.
Dr. Marjorie Lee Browne Colloquium is held every year as part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium in the Department of Mathematics, University of Michigan.
The W.W. Rankin Memorial Award had been named in the memory of W.R. Rankin, a mathematics professor with the Duke University. It is the highest honor that is conferred upon an individual by NCCTM.