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Marjorie Lee Browne

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Marjorie Lee Browne was a prominent mathematician and educator who, in 1949, became only the third African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in her field.


Born in Tennessee in 1914, Marjorie Lee Browne was a gifted mathematician and educator. In 1949, she became only the third African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in her field. In 1960, Browne set up an electronic digital computer center at North Carolina College, one of the first of its kind at a minority college.

Early Life

Mathematician and educator Marjorie Lee Browne was born on September 9, 1914, in Memphis, Tennessee. A pioneering academic, Browne earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1949, making her only the third female African American to earn a Ph.D. in her field (after Evelyn Boyd Granville and Euphemia Lofton Haynes, who earned their degrees in 1949 and 1943, respectively.)

The daughter of Mary Taylor Lee and her husband Lawrence Johnson Lee, Browne never really knew her mother, who died when she was just 2 years old. Her father, a transportation postal clerk with an astute appreciation for numbers, remarried shortly after his first wife's death. He and his second wife Lottie, a school teacher, encouraged their gifted daughter to take her studies seriously.


Lawrence, despite the rough racial climate, pushed his children to get the very best education possible. For Browne, that meant attending LeMoyne High School, a private institution that catered to Black students. From there, Browne put together enough funds to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C.—an impressive feat in the Depression. Browne graduated cum laude in 1935.

Browne's post-college life then re-routed her to New Orleans, where she landed a teaching job at Gilbert Academy. Determined to advance her education, Browne left her job after only a year and relocated to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she earned her master's (1939) and eventually her doctorate (1949) from the University of Michigan.

As an academic, Brown left her greatest mark at North Carolina College (now called North Carolina Central University) in Durham, where she joined the school's faculty immediately after earning her Ph.D.

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Teaching Career

In 1951, Browne was named chair of the Mathematics Department. She used that position to help her school pioneer some of the earliest computer use in her field. In 1960, Browne received a $60,000 grant from IBM to set up an electronic digital computer center at North Carolina College—one of the first of its kind at a minority college.

During her time at North Carolina Central University, Browne taught both undergraduate and graduate courses. Her work as an educator was so adored that she later published four sets of lecture notes for other teachers to follow. Under her direction, her college became home to a prized National Science Foundation Institute for secondary education in the area of mathematics.

Browne's work also took her to other parts of the country, as well as the world. In the early 1950s she was awarded a Ford Foundation grant that allowed her to attend Cambridge University, where she studied topology, a modern version of geometry that became Browne's specialty. Other grants landed her at the University of California at Los Angeles and, later, Columbia University.

Awards and Achievements

In 1975, Browne was recognized with the first W.W. Rankin Memorial Award for Excellence in Mathematics Education, an honor handed out by the North Carolina Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Over the course of her lifetime, Marjorie Browne served as a member of numerous organizations, including the Women's Research Society; the American Mathematical Society; and the Mathematical Association of America. In addition, Browne was one of the first African American women to serve as a member of the advisory council to the National Science Foundation.


Browne left North Carolina Central University in 1979. Sadly, however, she got to experience little of her retirement. On October 19 of that year she died of a heart attack at her home in Durham, North Carolina.

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