Marjorie Lee Browne: Black Woman Mathematician

One of the First Black Women to Receive a Doctorate in Mathematics

IBM Computer, 1960
IBM Computer, 1960. JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

Marjorie Lee Browne, an educator and mathematician, was one of first two (or three?) black women to receive a doctorate in mathematics in the United States, 1949. In 1960, Marjorie Lee Browne wrote a grant to IBM to bring a computer to a college campus—one of the first such college computerss, and likely the first at any historically black college. She lived from September 9, 1914 to October 19, 1979.

About Marjorie Lee Browne

Born Marjorie Lee in Memphis, Tennessee, the future mathematician was a skilled tennis player and singer as well as showing early signs of mathematics talent. Her father, Lawrence Johnson Lee, was a railway postal clerk, and her mother died when Browne was two years old. She was raised by her father and a stepmother, Lottie Taylor Lee (or Mary Taylor Lee) who taught school.

She was educated at local public schools, then graduated from LeMoyne High School, a Methodist school for African Americans, in 1931. She went to Howard University for college, graduating cum laude in 1935 in mathematics. She then attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, earning an M.S. in mathematics in 1939.  In 1949, Marjorie Lee Browne at the University of Michigan and Evelyn Boyd Granville (ten years younger) at Yale University became the first two African American women to earn Ph.D.'s in mathematics.

Browne's Ph.D. dissertation was in topology, a branch of mathematics related to geometry.

She taught in New Orleans for a year at Gilbert Academy, then taught in Texas at Wiley College, a historically black liberal arts college, from 1942 to 1945.  She became a mathematics professor at North Carolina Central University, teaching there from 1950 to 1975.

She was the first chair of the math department, beginning in 1951. NCCU was the first public liberal arts school of higher education in the United States for African Americans.

She was rejected early in her career by major universities and taught in the South. She focused on preparing secondary school teachers to teach the "new math."  She also worked to include women and people of color in careers in math and science. She often helped provide financial assistance to make it possible for students from poorer families to complete their education.

She began her math career before the explosion of efforts to expand those studying math and science in the wake of Russia's launching of the Sputnik satellite. She resisted the direction of math towards such practical applications as the space program, and instead worked with mathematics as pure numbers and concepts.

From 1952 to 1953, she studied combinatorial topology on a Ford Foundation fellowship at Cambridge University.

In 1957, she taught at the Summer Institute for Secondary School Science and Mathematics Teachers, under a National Science Foundation grant through NCCU.  She was a National Science Foundation Faculty Fellow, University of California, studying computing and numerical analysis.

From 1965 to 1966, she studied differential topology at Columbia University on a fellowship.

Browne died in 1979 in her home in Durham, North Carolina, still at work on theoretical papers.

Because of her generosity to students, several of her students began a fund to enable more students to study mathematics and computer science