Falconer, Etta Zuber

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Etta Zuber Falconer


Mathematician, educator

Dr. Etta Zuber Falconer devoted her career to increasing opportunities for women and minority scientists. For 37 years, Falconer was a mathematician, teacher, and administrator at Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, Georgia. Her efforts transformed Spelman into a magnet school for black women pursuing mathematics and science. "Because of her, we are now considered a model institution for excellence in science," Spelman math professor Dr. Sylvia Bozeman was quoted as saying in Falconer's obituary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mentored at Fisk University

Etta Zuber was born on November 21, 1933, in Tupelo, Mississippi. Her father, Walter Alexander Zuber, was a physician and her mother, Zadie L. Montgomery Zuber, was a musician who herself had studied at Spelman College. Etta and her older sister Alice attended segregated public schools in Tupelo. In 1949 at the age of 15, Zuber enrolled at Fisk, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee.

Zuber's interests had always centered on math and science. Although initially she majored in chemistry and minored in math, by her sophomore year Zuber's mathematical interests led her to reverse her major and minor subjects. The chair of the Fisk mathematics department, Dr. Lee Lorch, encouraged Zuber to pursue a career in mathematics. When she had completed all of the requirements for her major by her junior year, Lorch encouraged her to take graduate courses. Another Fisk professor, Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville, one of the first black women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, served as her mentor. Zuber had intended to teach high school math after graduation. However Lorch and Granville urged her to become a college professor. After her induction into Phi Beta Kappa and graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 1953, Zuber began working toward her master's degree at the University of Wisconsin.

Madison, Wisconsin, was Zuber's first experience living in a racially integrated society. She found it academically isolating and her social interactions were limited to students from Asia and Africa. The University of Wisconsin had neither black nor female professors and the white male graduate students refused to take her seriously. In addition to grading papers and working at various other jobs to support herself, Zuber had a teaching assistantship that covered her tuition and expenses. However when she walked in to teach her first college algebra course, the all-white class laughed, unable to believe that their new teacher was a 19-year-old black woman. She eventually earned her students' respect, but Zuber continued to encounter hostile and stressful situations. Although she was invited to remain at Wisconsin for doctoral studies, Zuber decided to return to Mississippi.

Specialized in Abstract Algebra

For the next nine years, Zuber taught math at Okolona Junior College in Okolona, Mississippi, 30 miles from Tupelo. There she met her future husband Dolan Falconer. The couple married in 1955 and Zuber took her husband's name, becoming Etta Zuber Falconer. In 1963 Etta Zuber Falconer left Okolona to teach math at Howard High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Falconer first attended the National Science Foundation (NSF) Teacher Training Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the summer of 1962. At the end of her third summer in the program, she was named Institute Director and also began working toward her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. However in 1965 Dolan Falconer was offered a position at Morris Brown College and the family relocated to Atlanta. Etta Falconer joined the Spelman faculty. The following year, a NSF Faculty Fellowship enabled her to continue teaching part-time at Spelman while working toward her Ph.D. at Emory University. In 1969 she became one of only a handful of black women to have earned a doctorate in mathematics.

Falconer's specialty was abstract algebra, specifically non-associative systems, quasigroups and loops. Her dissertation, entitled Quasigroup Identities Invariant under Isotopy, led to two published papers. Falconer's advisor, Trevor Evans, called her one of his best doctoral students in his 30-year career. In 1971 and 1972 Falconer was an associate professor at Norfolk State College in Norfolk, Virginia, after which she returned to Spelman as head of the mathematics department. In the summer of 1980, she attended a workshop at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on the Integration of Micro-Computers into the Undergraduate Mathematics Curriculum. Two years later Falconer earned a master's degree in computer science from Atlanta University.

Promoted Women's Scientific Careers

Despite her highly-regarded research, Falconer chose to devote herself to improving career opportunities for women and minority scientists. Her son Walter Falconer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2002: "She was recruited by Harvard and Yale, but gave up a tremendous career in research because her passion was to teach African-American women and to give them an opportunity for careers in the sciences." In a 1997 interview with Fran Hodgkins, quoted in Notable Women Scientists, Falconer said that at Spelman "[I] was able to crystallize my desire to change the prevailing pattern of limited access and limited success for African American women in mathematics."

Falconer established one of the most successful programs in math and science at any liberal arts college in the country. Spelman added departments of physics and computer science and a concentration in environmental science. Falconer was instrumental in the creation of the College Honors and Dual Degrees in Engineering Programs. She established a summer science program for entering freshman, as well as Spelman's annual Science Day and a guest speaker program that brought prominent mathematicians to campus. In addition Falconer founded a Health Careers Society to assist Spelman women with admittance to medical and dental schools.

At a Glance …

Born Etta Zuber on November 21, 1933, in Tupelo, MS; died on September 19, 2002; married Dolan P. Falconer, 1955 (died 1994); children: Dolan P. Falconer II, Alice Falconer Wilson, Walter Zuber Falconer. Education: Fisk University, BA, mathematics, 1953; University of Wisconsin, MS, mathematics, 1954; Emory University, PhD, mathematics, 1969; Atlanta University, MS, computer science, 1982.

Career: University of Wisconsin, Madison, teaching assistant, 1953–54; Okolona Junior College, Okolona, MS, math instructor, 1954–63; Howard High School, Chattanooga, TN, math teacher, 1963; NSF Teacher Training Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, director, 1964; Norfolk State College, Norfolk, VA, associate professor, 1971–72; Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, math instructor/associate professor, 1965–71, Mathematics Department Chair, 1972–82, professor of mathematics, 1972–90, Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, chair, 1982–90, WISE, director, 1987–98, Science Programs and Policy, director, 1990, associate and interim provost, 1991–98, Fuller E. Calloway Professor of Mathematics, 1990–02, professor emerita, 2002.

Selected memberships: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), fellow; American Mathematical Association; American Mathematical Society; Association for Women in Mathematics, council member; Mathematical Association of America.

Selected awards: United Negro College Fund, Distinguished Faculty Award, 1986–87; National Association of Mathematicians, Distinguished Service Award, 1994; Quality Education for Minorities Network, Giants in Science Award, 1995; University of Wisconsin, Honorary DSc, 1996; AAAS, Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement, 2001.

In 1987 Falconer received funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Scholars Program. This program enabled some 150 Spelman students to continue on to graduate school in math, chemistry, and industrial engineering. Falconer also coordinated a program that enabled undergraduates to conduct research at NASA facilities.

In 1995 Falconer received $9.1 million from NASA for the Model Institutions for Excellence Program to improve the college's science and mathematics infrastructure, provide scholarships, and increase the number and quality of science, engineering, and mathematics graduates. Falconer served as principal investigator of the program until 2002.

Saw the Results of Her Efforts

Falconer was a founder of the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM), which represents the concerns of black students and mathematicians. She also established the Atlanta Minority Women in Science Network. Falconer told Notable Black American Women in 2002: "I fully expect that this type of network will continue. It exerts influence on the larger mathematics community, looks for opportunities to promote African-Americans in mathematics at all levels, and serves as an information source for those who wish to take leadership roles in creating programs of excellence for undergraduate minority females interested in math and for other important programs."

Each semester Falconer helped an average of 100 students obtain grants and research opportunities. Thanks to her efforts by 2002 38% of Spelman students were majoring in math, science, or engineering, up from about 10% in 1974. Spelman graduates pursuing doctoral degrees in the sciences increased by 57% from 1988 to 2002.

Falconer retired as Professor Emerita in May of 2002. She died on September 19, 2002, of complications from pancreatic cancer. Her name was included in Spelman's new Science Center that was built in part through her efforts. Spelman College and the Falconer family endowed a mathematics scholarship in her name for students planning to pursue graduate studies in mathematics and careers in higher education. The 2005 scholarship announcement quoted Falconer upon receiving the American Women in Mathematics (AWM) 1995 Louise Hay Award for contributions to mathematics education: "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."

Selected writings


"Views of an African American Woman on Mathematics Meetings," in A Century of Mathematics Meetings, American Mathematical Society, 1996.


"Isotopy Invariants in Quasigroups," Transactions of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 151, 1970, pp. 511-526.
"Women in Science at Spelman College," Signs, Vol. 4, 1978, pp. 176-177.
"A Story of Success: The Sciences at Spelman College," Sage, Vol. 6, 1989, pp. 36-38.
"The Challenge of Diversity," DIMACS, Vol. 34, 1996, pp. 169-182.



Notable Black American Women, Vol. 3, Gale Group, 2002.

Proffitt, Pamela, ed., Notable Women Scientists, Gale Group, 1999.


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 22, 2002, p. C8.

Mathematical Association of America, Southeastern Section Newsletter, Fall 2002, pp. 6-7.


"Dr. Etta Zuber Falconer Endowed Scholarship in Mathematics," Spelman College, www.spelman.edu/academics/programs/mathematics/pdf/falconerscholarshipflyer.pdf (January 4, 2007).

"Etta Falconer," Biographies of Women Mathematicians, www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/falconer.htm (January 4, 2007).

"Etta Zuber Falconer," AAAS-History & Archives, http://archives.aaas.org/people.php?p_id=777 (January 4, 2007).

"Etta Zuber Falconer," Mathematicians of the African Diaspora, www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/PEEPS/falconner_ettaz.html (January 4, 2007).

"Etta Zuber Falconer," School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Falconer.html (January 4, 2007).

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