Honouring Evelyn Boyd Granville

On STEM Women, we’ve been writing about women in STEM to celebrate International Women’s Day. Below is what I wrote, and what a joy it was to reflect on the life and work of Evelyn Boyd Granville. She was only the second Black American woman to gain a PhD in Mathematics. We didn’t include this in the original post below, but I especially loved reading all her personal recollections of the sacrifices that her mother and aunt made to put her through university. 

Granville was raised in a single parent home by Julia Boyd, her poor working mother who wholeheartedly supported her daughter’s education. This was a very brave move given that in the 1940s, there were few educational or work opportunities for women in science, let alone for minority women. Granville recalls:

I saw black women – attractive, well dressed women – teaching school, and I wanted to be a teacher because that’s all I saw. I was not aware of any other profession… I did not receive a scholarship the first year at (Smith College), and I was told later that they didn’t see how in the world a poor child as I could afford to go there. 

Granville faced much discrimination along the way, not just in finding work despite her obvious brilliance, but in other ways that should have impeded her progress. For example, she was not able to find accommodation in New York when she moved there to undertake her postdoctoral work. 

Keep reading to learn more about this phenomenal woman!

Evelyn Boyd Granville

Evelyn Boyd Granville is one of the most distinguished American Mathematicians and Computer Scientists of the 20th century, having forged careers both within and outside academia.

She came from a struggling working class African-American family that was highly supportive of her education. She attended a segregated school but went on to study at Smith College, where she majored in theoretical Physics and Mathematics, while also having an interest in Astronomy. She earned her PhD from Yale in 1949. She was the second African American woman to earn a Math doctorate, and the first to earn this qualification in pure Mathematics.

Decades later, she would be the first African American woman to earn an honorary degree as a Doctor of Science, awarded by Smith University in 1989 . She would be awarded the same honorary doctorate from Yale in 2001.

Granville missed out on academic positions along the way because she was a woman of colour, but she finally got a teaching position at Fisk University in 1950.

Computer Programming for Space Missions

In the mid-1950s, Granville joined Diamond Ordnance Fuze Laboratories as a Mathematician. Next, she moved on to develop computer programs to support the trajectory analysis of the Mercury Project (the first American manned mission in space). Later in same decade, she moved to IBM where she worked on orbit computation and computer procedures. She says of these early projects:

The work entailed consulting with ordinance engineers and scientists on the Mathematical analysis of problems related to the development of missile fuses… I met several Mathematicians who were employed… as computer programmers. At that time the development of electronic computers was in its infancy. The application of computers to scientific studies interested me very much, which led to my giving serious consideration to an offer of employment from International Business Machines Corporation.

In the early 1960s, Granville worked for the Space Technology Laboratories working on space trajectories, and she later moved to the American Aviation Space and Information Systems Divisions to work as a research specialist on the Apollo project. She worked on orbit computation, numerical analysis and digital computer technologies. She says:

In the early sixties there was a great demand for mathematicians and scientists to work in private industry as companies increased their staffs to perform contract work for NASA and defense agencies. It was not unusual in that era for a person to switch jobs often as more interesting (and more lucrative) positions opened up. 

She adds:

When NASA awarded IBM a contract to write and maintain computer programs for the US space program, I returned to Washington as part of a team of scientists and mathematicians who computed and produced tracking systems for satellites, including NASA’s Vanguard and Mercury projects. Later, I worked with North American Aviation (now part of Boeing) on the Apollo shuttle. It was an exciting time. The defence and space programs were booming, and jobs were plentiful.

From the mid-to-late 1960s, Granville returned to IBM to continue similar work in computing.

Promoting STEM Excellence

From the late 1960s onwards, Granville made a triumphant return to academia as a Professor in Mathematics. In 1975, she published what would be the first of two editions of a book that was used in over 50 universities, Theory and Application of Mathematics for Teachers. 

During the mid-to-late 1980s, Granville was a Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Texas College. In 1990, she took up a Chair in Mathematics position at Texas University. Throughout the years, Granville travelled around the USA inspiring teachers and students and she also served as a specialist member for various boards. This included the Psychology Examining Committee of the Board of Medical Examiners of the State of California; the Centre for Improvement of Mathematics Education; the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; and the American Association of University Women.

Of her life’s greatest accomplishments, Granvile says:

First of all, showing that women can do Mathematics. Being an African American woman, letting people know that we have brains too.

Of her life’s greatest work, she says:

I can say without a doubt that this was the most interesting job of my lifetime—to be a member of a group responsible for writing computer programs to track the paths of vehicles in space. 

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Text on image: I always smile when I hear that women cannot excel in mathematics. – Evelyn Boyd Granville.

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