Walter Richard Talbot


Born: 13 December 1909 in Pittsburgh, USA
Died: 26 December 1977 in Washington D.C., USA

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Walter R Talbot's parents were the African-Americans Jerry Talbot and Carrie E Payne. Jerry Talbot, born on 14 September 1870 in Forest Depot, Virginia, USA, was a foreman working on street paving. Carrie Payne, born on 10 March 1880 in Campbell County, Virginia, USA, married Jerry Talbot on 29 November 1899 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, USA. We note that on at least one official document, Carrie's year of birth is given as 1877. Jerry and Carrie Talbot had five children, one dying as a baby. The four surviving children were Helen V Talbot (1901-1951), Reginald P Talbot (1904-1981), Jerry W Talbot Jr (1907-1944), and Walter Richard Talbot (1909-1977), the subject of this biography. At the time Walter was born the family were living in a rented home at 5635 Mignonette Street, Pittsburgh, together with Carrie's father Richard Payne and her brother William Payne. Walter's parents could read and write and his [8]:-
... parents and grandparents had attained their education in spite of limited opportunities for formal schooling.
He wrote about his education in [1]:-
The tone had been created long before that by grandparents who had no educational opportunities but who practised writing and who virtually taught themselves to read, with occasional help, of course, from their "learned" grandchildren. Part of the while I was in elementary school my oldest brother [Reginald] was in college, and I can recall his drilling aloud on the mysterious trigonometric functions. The impressions made on me must have been deep because in my teaching I always had my students master, beyond the psychological point of recall, the frequently used basic notions of mathematics.
After elementary school, Talbot progressed to High School in 1923 [1]:-
My high school was regarded, at least by its students, as one of the better "academic" ones, but only the customary two years of mathematics were offered; so in my last two years, I took chemistry and physics. The two chemistry teachers were sincere and encouraging. Dr Gorgas regularly hired a coloured (term in vogue then) girl as departmental secretary. One of the physics teachers acted as if another student and I had forgotten "our place" by taking physics. Our reaction to him was to keep scoring high on every test he gave. ... Calling names is risky because everyone who has been an influence cannot be listed, but I must name a few who set patterns for me. My high school Latin teacher, R N Taylor, provided guidance and encouragement through all four years. In my senior year, I was assigned to Miss Ealy's section of English Literature. She was a brilliant scholar with her vast knowledge of the subject and the influences affecting it, and she was a masterful teacher, as indicated by the ease with which she had her students reading the original works and not the condensed booklets. Maybe she is the one who got me started on teaching without leaning on notes.
Graduating from high school, Talbot entered the University of Pittsburgh in 1927 [1]:-
The physical world always fascinated me; so I continued physics in college, almost to having a major. Were it not for the depression that forced me to hold on to a little college-student job that provided meals and streetcar fare but for which the work hours overlapped the laboratory hours, I might have majored in physics.
The Pittsburgh Directory for 1929 has him living at his home address with the occupation of 'waiter' which is clearly the college-student job he referred to in the quote above. Continuing to describe his university studies, he said [1]:-
The depression, then, was a factor in my choosing an intriguing, but non-laboratory major. Fortunately, in mathematics I met some professors who were inspiring and friendly. Professor M M Culver was my advisor for all seven years. Professor Foraker taught me several geometry courses, and after I started teaching, he went out of his way to make sure that I did not make the error of passing up election to Sigma Xi. Several years later, it was Professor Knipp who drew upon the record and his memory in presenting my credentials for alumni membership at the induction ceremonies for Phi Beta Kappa.
Walter Talbot received a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and Physics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1931. In 1934 he received a Ph.D. in Mathematics, also from the University of Pittsburgh. His thesis advisor had been Montgomery Morton Culver (1891-1950), a faculty member in the department of mathematics at University of Pittsburgh from 1924-1950, and the title of his thesis was Fundamental regions in S_6 for the simple quaternary G_60, Type I. He gives the following Introduction to the thesis:-
A finite group of order g will permute a point into g points at the most. A set of points which are permuted among themselves by the operators of the group are said to form a conjugate set of points. The complete system of points no two of which are conjugates under a given group may be said to define a fundamental region for the group. There are then g fundamental regions for a collineation group of order g. Some studies of fundamental regions for certain groups have been made [F Klein, 1890; J W Young, 1911; H F Price, 1918] and the problem dealt with in these notes is the determination of the fundamental regions in six-space for the simple quaternary group of order sixty.
Thomas Hales writes in [4]:-
Walter Richard Talbot was the fourth African American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics. His doctoral degree is from the University of Pittsburgh in 1934 in geometric group theory. As far as I know, research in Pittsburgh on geometric group theory seems to have started with Professors J S Taylor and M M Culver at the University of Pittsburgh, who were both academic descendants of Felix Klein. They were both members of Talbot's thesis committee. Talbot's research grew out of Klein's work on fundamental domains. A contemporary research program was the determination of fundamental domains of finite group actions on complex vector spaces.
After the award of his doctorate, Talbot was appointed as an assistant professor at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Lincoln University began as Lincoln Institute in 1866 to educate African-Americans. It became Lincoln University in 1921 governed by a Board of Curators. It became an accredited four-year college of arts and sciences in 1934, the year Talbot was appointed, and graduate instruction was begun in the summer session of 1940. In 1938 Lincoln University stated:-
Dr Walter Talbot is Lincoln University's youngest Doctor of Philosophy. He is a member of Sigma Xi, national honorary scientific fraternity, and Pi Tau Phi, national scholastic society. He has served as advisor to the class of '38 since its freshman year.
Talbot was promoted to associate professor and then to full professor. In 1939 he became Dean of Men and in 1944 he became Head of Mathematics. He said of his colleagues [1]:-
... in post-college days there were colleagues such as President Sherman Scruggs of Lincoln University (Mo.), who tolerated differing points of view at a time when many presidents did not, and college teachers who knew not only their fields but also good procedures through familiarity with the literature of the very active accreditation organizations.
Talbot married Kathleen Almira Mitchell who was born on 22 May 1915 in Greensboro, Guilford, North Carolina, USA. She was the daughter of George Henry Mitchell (1875-1933) and Lucy Case Smith (born 1888) and attended Woodward High School, Cincinnati, Ohio. Walter and Kathleen Talbot had two children, Walter Richard Talbot Jr., born 11 December 1938 in Jefferson City, and Kathleen Talbot, born 18 December 1940 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Walter Richard Talbot Jr. became an oral surgeon and died on 22 December 2004.

Two pieces of data from 1940 are as follows. In the 1940 Census Talbot is living at 504 Lafayette Street, Jefferson City with his wife Kathleen Talbot and his son Walter Talbot. He registered for the Draft on 16 October 1940 giving an address of 720 Lafayette Street, Jefferson City. It states he is living with his mother who is his 'Next of Kin' and gives his appearance as follows: Complexion - Light Brown; Eye Colour - Brown; Hair Colour - Black. By October 1940, his wife had gone back to her parents to await the birth of her second child. We note that the house at 504 Lafayette Street was known as "The Monastery" in the 1930s and 1940s and was a popular gathering place for Lincoln University intellectuals and their guests.

The local Jefferson City newspapers give a lot of information about Talbot. For example, in April 1941 he was building a five rooms, brick and tile home on Lafayette Street. On Friday 30 October 1942 it states that Walter R Talbot, of 1008 Lafayette street, entertained for the week-end Mr and Mrs N A Sweets and daughter. Nathaniel A Sweets was a graduate of Lincoln University who became the publisher of the St Louis American newspaper which was a driving force in the St Louis campaign for equal rights, fair housing practices, and better schools for African-Americans. The same Friday 30 October 1942 Jefferson City newspaper reports that the Talbot's young daughter Kathleen returned to Cincinnati with her grandmother, Lucy Mitchell. The Friday 27 November 1942 newspaper even tells us that:-

Walter R Talbot and Raymond Kemp made a week-end motor trip to St Louis to do some shopping.
Raymond Kemp (1907-2002) was the Director of Health, Physical Education and Athletics, and coached varsity football, basketball and track and field at Lincoln University.

On Friday 29 September 1944 it is reported that Walter R Talbot resigned as dean of men and became head of the department of mathematics. He was chairman of the University Defense council and registrar from 1946 to 1948. We also learn in the Jefferson City newspapers of Talbot's achievements at bridge. For example in November 1954 he was awarded the Pla-Mor trophy for high points and on Friday 24 May 1963 he won first place honours at the Pla-Mor Duplicate Bridge Club.

In 1963 Talbot left Lincoln University when he succeeded Clarence Stephens (1917-2018), the ninth African-American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, as the Chair of the Department of Mathematics at Morgan State University. This University, founded as the Centenary Biblical Institute in 1867, was renamed Morgan College in 1890 and then moved to its present site in northeast Baltimore in 1917 after receiving a major grant from Andrew Carnegie. A private institution until 1939, the state of Maryland purchased the College to provide more opportunities for its African-Americans. When Talbot took up his position there, it was still named Morgan College and only in 1975, two years before he retired, did it become a university with the right to award doctorates. After moving to Baltimore, Talbot lived at 4902 Pilgrim Road.

The situation for African-Americans began to improve during Talbot's time at Morgan College. For Talbot's description of the African-American breakthrough to the national mathematical bodies, see THIS LINK.

In fact Talbot was on the American Mathematical Society Committee on Legal Aid in 1977. Johnny L Houston writes [6]:-

Talbot served the Mathematical Association of America in several significant capacities, and he was a major driving force among the seventeen who came together in January 1969 to found the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM). More than any other single individual, it was Talbot's leadership, guidance, organizational skills, and networking skills that raised funds for the establishment of NAM.
The obituary [3] gives details of Talbot's contributions to Morgan State University:-
According to Dr Earl Embree, professor of mathematics at Morgan, Dr Talbot's main contribution to Morgan was the introduction of computer technology and its use to the students. Mrs Cynthia Harvey, an assistant professor, said "Dr Talbot provided excellent leadership for the department by getting new faculty involved with student activities. He encouraged them to expand their horizons. He encouraged department members to work together for common goals." Dr Talbot also directed a summer institute in mathematics at Morgan for secondary school teachers. ... In 1967, he was named to the scientific council of the Maryland Academy of Sciences. Other honours included membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Dr Talbot was a member of the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America, the Central Association of Science and Mathematics Teachers, the Maryland State Teachers Association, Beta Kappa Chi Scientific Society, Sigma Xi, Alpha Phi Alpha and the American and National bridge associations.
Although Talbot did relatively little research after his thesis, concentrating on his teaching, he did submit a paper to the Seventy-Sixth Summer Meeting of the American Mathematical Society held in Pennsylvania State University in September 1971. The paper, co-authored with Volodymyr Bohun-Chudyniv, also of Morgan State College, was On algorithms for constructing distributive idempotent quasi-groups of order 2(3q + r) (r = 1,2 ). The authors' Abstract is as follows:-
An idempotent quasi-group is called distributive if for any of its 3 elements the following relations hold: a(bc) = ab.ac ; (ab)c = ac.bc. In a paper, "On distributive idempotent quasi-groups defined by n-tuple systems" presented at a MAA meeting on April 29, 1971, at Loyola College, Baltimore, the first author [Bohun-Chudyniv] introduced the 4 nonisotopic types of idempotent quasi-groups and algorithms for constructing them. In this paper the authors introduce distributive idempotent quasi-groups of order 2(3q + r) (r = 1, 2), and algorithms for constructing them. Each algorithm consists of two parts. Part one is a triple-system of 3q + r (r =1, 2) order. The second part consists of two operators constructed from the triplets of the system. For triple-systems of different orders there are 24 different numbers of pairs of operators. Therefore the total number of distributive idempotent quasi-groups equals 30 × 24 =720 distributive idempotent quasi-groups of the 8th order. 30 is the number of triple-systems of the 7th order. Illustrative examples are given and theorems are proved.
Talbot suffered kidney problems and retired in May 1977. On Monday 26 December 1977, he was an outpatient in the renal dialysis unit of Howard University Hospital, Washington D.C. when he suffered a heart attack and died. His funeral was held on Saturday 31 December 1977 at the Stewart Funeral Home, 4001 Benning Road, N.E., Washington, D.C. His interment was at Harmony Memorial Park, Hyattsville, Prince George's County, Maryland, which, although racially integtated, is mostly African-Americans.

Various honour have been given to Talbot following his death. In 1978, the National Association of Mathematicians honoured Talbot at an "In Memorial" luncheon and, in the same year, Morgan State University named a scholarship in his honour. The Cox-Talbot Lecture was inaugurated in 1990 in honour of Elbert Frank Cox and Walter Richard Talbot. The first lecture was Some Milestones of the Past, Challenges of the Future delivered by Johnny L Houston, a co-founder of the National Association of Mathematicians, given during the annual National Association of Mathematicians Banquet as part of the Joint Mathematics Meeting at Louisville, Kentucky, in January 1990.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (8 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor
  1. The African-American breakthrough

Cross-references in MacTutor

  1. National Association of Mathematicians

Other Web sites
  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project
  2. MathSciNet Author profile


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