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Etta Zuber Falconer, Ph.D.

Spelman's Legendary Math
and Science Professor
Passes On
By Lango Deen

"...That, in many ways, is her legacy: thousands of young women, and daughters of those women, who will believe they can do math..." Spelman grad Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, assoc. dean and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health

At an awards ceremony in 1995 held by the Association for Women in Mathematics, Etta Zuber Falconer, Ph.D. spoke the words that probably describe her life's work best. Addressing the audience at this celebration of outstanding achievements in mathematics education, Dr. Falconer said her entire career had been " increasing the number of highly qualified African Americans in mathematics and mathematics-related careers."

Dr. Falconer, one of the first 20 Black women in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in math, died of pancreatic cancer in September. She had spent nearly four decades at Spelman College -- the historically Black college for women, located in Georgia -- holding a succession of positions: professor of mathematics and head of the mathematics department (1972); head of the division of natural sciences (1982); and Fuller E. Calloway Professor of Mathematics and associate provost for science programs and policy (1990), a position she held until May 2002, when she retired. Her tenure permitted her to impact positively the lives of hundreds of young women in mathematics and the sciences, as well as scores of faculty, as she worked with major organizations to develop one of the most productive science programs at a liberal arts college in the U.S.

Albert Thompson, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and director of Spelman's NASA-sponsored Model Institutions for Excellence (MIE) Program, says the fact that Spelman still was seen by some in the 1970s as a place where women train only in teaching and social sciences was the result of preconceived notions.

"Spelman's Dual Degree Engineering Program started in the 1970s and now has 12 [participating engineering] schools," says Dr. Thompson. "The American Association for Medical Colleges recently ranked Spelman College #2, after Xavier, for sending African-American females to medical school."

The MIE Program enhances Spelman's impressive track record of preparing women for science, engineering, and mathematics (SEM) careers.

A 22-year colleague of Dr. Falconer, Dr. Thompson was part of a revolving team of investigators who wrote grant proposals for many Spelman programs and processes initiated by her, to increase the number of underrepresented minority students in the study of mathematics and science. He says Dr. Falconer had a knack for getting everybody involved.

"It was very difficult to tell her no," Dr. Thompson says.

"Dr. Falconer worked with people in collaboration to get things done," says Dr. Silvia Bozeman, who has been a math professor at Spelman for the past 28 years. "Under her leadership, we created an array of special programs to support student development, curriculum development, and strengthen the infrastructure in the sciences."

Among Dr. Falconer's other initiatives: a Summer Science Program for pre-freshmen; an annual spring Science Day; a NASA Women in Science and Engineering Program and NASA's Undergraduate Science Research Program; the College Honors Program; and proposals that resulted in Spelman's being selected by the National Science Foundation and NASA as a "Model Institution for Excellence" and receiving a $9-million grant that provides funding for scholarships, curriculum development, equipment, infrastructure, and building renovations.

Spelman's new science facility is named after her. Olivia Scriven, director of sponsored programs at Spelman, who is writing her dissertation on "The Growth of the Spelman Science Program," says Dr. Falconer believed her school could not attract students to the sciences with a dark and uninviting building.

Born in northeast Mississippi in 1933, Dr. Falconer grew up in Tupelo, Miss. Her parents, Walter A. Zuber, a medical doctor, and Zadie L. Montgomery Zuber, a musician who attended Spelman College, were perhaps her greatest inspirations. Dr. Falconer was graduated from high school in 1949, then entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where she received a B.A. in math with a minor in chemistry. Her first career role model, Evelyn Boyd Granville, one of the first two Black women to be awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics in the U.S., taught Dr. Falconer during those undergraduate years. Recalling a conversation he had with Dr. Falconer, Dr. Thompson says she once described Granville as being "a tough critic" during her undergraduate years.

Falconer underwent "a major culture shock," as she put it, when she went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in 1953, to undertake an M.Sc. in mathematics. The social environment was so uncomfortable for her that she returned home after getting her master's degree, without undertaking research for a doctorate. Scriven says Dr. Falconer spoke of her own driving passion for minority students to have what she didn't when she was an undergraduate.

"Her public demeanor really belied the strength behind her," Scriven says. "She looked like someone you might meet in church on Sunday."

In between teaching at the junior college and four-year college level in Mississippi and at a high school in Tennessee, Falconer married Dolan Falconer, a basketball coach, in 1954. They had three children.

When the family moved to Atlanta in 1965, Dr. Falconer got a job as an instructor at Spelman. In 1969, Dr. Falconer became the 11th African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, earning her degree from Emory University. By 1971, when her husband took a coaching appointment in Virginia, Dr. Falconer took a job with the math department at Norfolk State University but returned to Spelman after the family went back to Atlanta. Dr. Falconer became a pillar of Spelman's academic community, promoting careers in science and engineering for a total of 37 years.

In 2001, the American Association for the Advancement of Science presented Dr. Falconer with its Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Dr. Deborah B. Prothrow-Stith, a math major at Spelman between 1971 and 1975, is now a nationally recognized public health leader and associate dean and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. She spoke about the tremendous influence Dr. Falconer had on her.

"Dr. Falconer was generous with sharing knowledge, information, sharing your successes," Dr. Prothrow-Stith says. "There are literally thousands of young women who would say that she was responsible for their success, and that, in many ways, is her legacy: thousands of young women, and daughters of those women, who will believe they can do math, a huge accomplishment because girls didn't do math."

Lango Deen can be reached at

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