The 2016 book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly and the subsequent Hollywood film of the same name chronicled the lives of several African American women who were skilled mathematicians and made many contributions to aeronautics, computer science, mathematics and space exploration.
The women highlighted in Shetterly’s book were not the only black Americans who worked in this field. Indeed, a young woman from Memphis made important contributions to the study and understanding of mathematics.
Marjorie Lee was born on Sept. 9, 1914, to Lawrence Johnson and Mary Taylor Lee. Her father was a clerk with the Railway Mail Service, a branch of the U. S. Postal Service. His position overseeing mail shipped by railroad required a working knowledge of mathematics and Lee passed on his mathematical skills to his daughter. When Marjorie’s mother died in 1915 her father married a Memphis schoolteacher named Lottie, who instilled in her stepdaughter a love of learning.
Marjorie completed an associate’s degree at LeMoyne College in Memphis and then earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Howard University in 1935. After teaching math and physics in New Orleans, Marjorie returned to Memphis in 1938 to teach at a local private school. In the summers she took graduate courses at the University of Michigan and completed a master’s degree in 1939. Armed with her advanced degree, Marjorie left Memphis in 1942 to accept a teaching position at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. In 1947 she was appointed a teaching fellow at Michigan and two years later she earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics with her dissertation On the One Parameter Subgroups in Certain Topological and Matrix Groups. At some point Marjorie married and divorced a man named Browne, thus becoming Dr. Marjorie Lee Browne.
Soon after she became the third African American woman to earn a Ph.D in mathematics, 1949, Dr. Browne joined the faculty of North Carolina Central University in Durham where she remained until her retirement and death in 1979. She became chair of the mathematics department in 1951 where she created an institute for secondary math and science teachers funded by the National Science Foundation. In the early 1960s she secured a $60,000 grant from IBM to establish a digital computer center which allowed North Carolina Central to become a leader in the new field of computer science. Dr. Browne published several books, including Sets, Logic and Mathematical Thought and Elementary Matrix Algebra. She also published a paper entitled “A Note on Classical Groups” in the American Mathematics Monthly and in 1952 she received a Ford Foundation Grant to study combinational topology at Cambridge University in Great Britain.
Despite her heavy teaching load and the writing of books, Dr. Browne never stopped exploring current trends in mathematics. She received a fellowship to study differential topology at Columbia University and was named a National Science Faculty Fellow in computing and numerical analysis.
In recognition of her distinguished contributions to mathematical thought and teaching, she was awarded the W. W. Rankin Memorial Award for Excellence in Mathematics Education by the North Carolina Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1974. Hidden for too long, Dr. Marjorie Lee Browne is now remembered for being one of America’s most distinguished mathematicians.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.