Etta Zuber Falconer

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21 November 1933
Tupelo, Mississippi, USA
19 September 2002
Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Etta Zuber Falconer was an American mathematician and educator. She was one of the earlier African-American women to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics.


Etta Zuber's parents were Walter A Zuber, who was a medical doctor, and Zadie L Montgomery who was a musician. Walter and Zadie had two children, both daughters. The older girl was Alice with Etta the younger of the two. Etta was born into an African - American family who clearly valued education and she had the advantage that, somewhat unusually for this time, her mother Zadie had been educated at College; in fact at Spelman College where Etta would spend most of her career.

Etta attended schools in Tupelo and completed her school education at George Washington High School. Graduating from the High School in 1949 Etta Zuber entered the traditionally Black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she studied mathematics with chemistry as her minor subject. She was fortunate that at Fisk she was taught by Evelyn Boyd Granville who was one of the first two African- American women to be awarded a Ph.D. Granville was appointed Associate Professor of Mathematics at Fisk University and taught there from 1950 to 1952. Even though Granville was only at Fisk for part of Zuber's undergraduate years she was still an inspiring teacher yet not the only teacher at Fisk to strongly influence Zuber for Lee Lorch also played a major role [1]:-
There are several persons who have had a tremendous impact upon my professional life. Dr Lee Lorch inspired me to study mathematics and helped to mould me as a person because of his belief in the dignity of all people. He remains my mentor to this day. One of the first Black women to earn at Ph.D. in mathematics, Dr Evelyn Boyd Granville, taught me during my college days and became my first career role model.
Zuber graduated with a B.A. in 1953 and then went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to undertake graduate studies. However she now encountered problems as she has explained [1]:-
Can you imagine what it was like for a 19 year old Black female from Tupelo, Mississippi who had been immersed in segregation for all her life to attend the University of Wisconsin? I underwent a major culture shock. ... I gravitated to students from Africa, a roommate from Thailand, and an office-mate from India, who was the only person to whom I could ask a mathematics question.
Academically she did well and was awarded a Master's Degree in 1954. However, she felt uncomfortable in Madison decided to return home to Mississippi. She accepted a teaching position at Okolona Junior College in Okolona, Mississippi in 1954. It was while she taught there that she met Dolan Falconer and the two married. They had three children, Dolan Jr, Alice, and Walter.

For the rest of this biography we will refer to Etta Zuber as Falconer. She remained at Okolona Junior College until 1963 but she began to attend summer courses towards the end of this period. She attended the University of Illinois-Champaign at Urbana during the summers of 1962 to 1965, spending the academic year 1964-65 at the National Science Foundation Teacher Training Institute at the University of Illinois-Champaign. She continued to teach after leaving Okolona Junior College, accepting a teaching post at Howard High School in Chattanooga for the academic year 1963-64 before being appointed as an Instructor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1965. She was now in a post in the College where her mother had studied and she spent most of the rest of her career at Spelman College.

Although she had left her graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin without undertaking research for a doctorate, she now decided to study for a Ph.D. in algebra at Emory University. Her studies there were supervised by Trevor Evans:-
... my dissertation advisor, [who] fostered my growth in the area of algebra.
Falconer was awarded her Ph.D. in 1969 for a thesis entitled Quasi group Identities Invariant under Isotopy. Two papers by Falconer were based on her thesis. The first Isotopy invariants in quasigroups was published in 1970 in the Transactions of the American Mathematical Society. It is an excellent piece of work which considers loop and quasigroup identities that are invariant under isotopy, proving a number of very interesting results. The second of the two papers was Isotopes of some special quasigroup varieties published in 1971 by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In it Falconer characterises the classes of all quasigroups that are isotopic to some special classes of loops. In particular she shows that a necessary and sufficient condition for a quasigroup be isotopic to a group is that it satisfies a generalised group identity. She also finds necessary and sufficient condition that a quasigroup be isotopic to various types of loops such as a Moufang loop.

Falconer was appointed to the Mathematics Department at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia in 1971 and after spending the academic year 1971-72 there she returned to Spelman College at Professor of Mathematics and Head of the Mathematics Department. In 1982 she became Head of the Division of Natural Sciences and in 1990 she became Fuller E Calloway Professor of mathematics and Director of Science Programs and Policy at Spelman College. Houston writes in [1]:-
This succession of promotions have permitted her to positively impact the lives of hundreds of young ladies in mathematics and the sciences as well as scores of faculty. During her approximately thirty year tenure at Spelman, Falconer has become one of American's most productive, distinguished and influential mathematics and science educators, generously sharing her time, talents, energies, scholarly publications and presentations with thousands of persons throughout the USA.
Rather remarkably Falconer did not end her education at this point but continued to study. In particular she took a second Master's Degree, this time in Computer Science from Atlanta University in 1982.

When one examines the two papers on quasigroup and loops which we described briefly above, then one cannot help feeling sorry that Falconer did not continue her research in this area. It is clear that she had much to offer as a research mathematician. However, it is probable that her contributions as an educator, devoting her energies to improve the participation of African American women in mathematics and science, has proved much more valuable. She has worked through major organisations to achieve her aims. For example she has served in various capacities: the American Association for the Advancement in Science; the Association for Women in Mathematics; the Mathematical Association of American; the American Mathematical Society; the National Institute of Science; and the National Science Foundation.

Certainly her contributions have been recognised with many awards and honours. In particular she received the National Association of Mathematicians Distinguished Service Award in 1994 and the Association for Women in Mathematics Louis Hay Award for contributions to Mathematics Education in 1995. In her address after receiving this award in 1995 Falconer said:-
I have devoted my entire life to increasing the number of highly qualified African Americans in mathematics and mathematics related careers. High expectations, the building of self confidence, and the creation of a nurturing environment have been essential components for the success of these students. They have fully justified my beliefs. Perhaps the most rewarding moments have come when younger faculty have undertaken the same goal and have surpassed my efforts - reaching out to the broader community to help minorities and women achieve in mathematics.
Further honours given to Falconer includes the Giants in Science Award from the Quality Education for Minorities Network in 1996 and an honorary doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1996. In 2001 she was awarded the Lifetime Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement in Science.

References (show)

  1. Biography of Etta Zuber Falconer, NAM Newsletter (Summer, 1996), 5.

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update April 2002