Marjorie Lee Browne was a famous mathematician who pioneered the field of mathematics, specifically relating to algebra. She lived a very fulfilling life but was often subject to racism and prejudice, as she was a Black woman in education in the early and mid-1900s.

Early Life

Marjorie was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on 9th September 1914 – at the beginning of the First World War. Her mother was Mary Taylor Lee, and her father was Lawrence Johnson Lee; however, Mary Taylor sadly passed away shortly after Marjorie’s birth. Lawrence soon remarried a woman named Lottie, who strived to encourage Marjorie to focus on her studies. Marjorie’s parents realized she was smart and gifted and therefore invested in her education by putting her through private school.

While attending LeMoyne High School in Memphis, Browne loved being a teenager. She would spend time with her friends and loved playing sports. She won the Memphis City Women’s Tennis Singles Championship in 1929! Alongside being a typical teen, Marjorie focused her heart and soul on mathematics. She loved the freedom it gave her to complete her studies alone.

Browne’s dad, Lawrence, was well-known in the local community for excelling in maths. He certainly didn’t fall short in providing a fabulous start to Marjorie’s education and investing in her interest. LeMoyne High School was among the most prestigious African American high schools, specifically for prospective teachers.

Early University Education

In 1931, Marjorie Lee Browne graduated from LeMoyne High School and then attended Howard University. This university is historically known as a private federally charted Black research university and is located in Washington, D.C. Since the university was established in 1867, it welcomed students of all sexes and races; however, this doesn’t mean that university life for Marjorie would have been easy. In the 1930s, Howard University still had segregated housing for students. On top of that, The Great Depression resulted in the university experiencing financial hardship.

Meanwhile, Browne focused on her studies and soon graduated with a maths degree in 1935. After this, she moved to New Orleans to live with her extended family and teach maths at the high school level.

What did Browne focus on in her career?

Once Marjorie graduated with her undergraduate degree, she then applied to the University of Michigan to undertake their maths graduate program. During the mid-1900s, life was hard for African Americans who wanted access to quality education. The University of Michigan was one of the few U.S. institutions accepting African American students.

Luckily, Browne received a teaching fellowship at this university. It meant that she studied and attended her classes full-time while writing her dissertation and teaching other undergraduate students. At the end of the graduate program, Marjorie earned a doctorate in maths in 1949. This made her known as Marjorie Lee Browne, Ph.D. Marjorie was the third-ever Black woman to earn a maths Ph.D. The next African American woman to earn a maths Ph.D. didn’t occur until over a decade later.

In the 1940s, specifically, it was very uncommon for Black women to earn mathematical degrees. And what made Marjorie stand out, even more, was that she pursued her Ph.D. Despite all odds, nothing stopped her from attaining the highest quality of education during this specific period of history.

Marjorie believed that a mathematician “appreciates mathematics’s beauty, power, and eloquence as one of the greatest art forms.” She embodied this in its entirety!

How can I teach my pupils about women in mathematics?

Not only was Marjorie Lee Browne a mathematical prodigy, but she became an inspiration to teachers and African American women alike to pursue maths at a graduate level. She realized and understood that more had to be done to help Black women access education – particularly in the STEM fields.

Teaching your pupils or children about women in STEM and mathematics more generally can be difficult. However, like Marjorie, we should encourage children to pursue maths during their educational careers. Browne spent most of her later years teaching other teachers about linear algebra, which would have encouraged female teachers to take the lead in maths. She died in 1979.

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