Etta Zuber Falconer (1933-2002)

Etta Zuber Falconer
Image Courtesy: MacTutor (CC-BY SA 4.0)

Mathematician Etta Zuber Falconer was born on November 21, 1933, in Tupelo, Mississippi. Her mother, Zadie L. Montgomery, was a musician, and her father, Dr. Walter A. Zuber, was a physician. She graduated from George Washington Carver High School in 1949. Zuber was only fifteen years old when she enrolled into Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. One of her early instructors was Evelyn Boyd Granville, an associate professor of mathematics.

Zuber graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and minor in chemistry in 1953.  While at Fisk, Zuber was elected to Phi Beta Kappa honor society. At the age of nineteen, Zuber enrolled into the University of Wisconsin at Madison, supporting herself with various jobs. She graduated with her master’s degree in mathematics in 1954.

Zuber returned to Mississippi in 1955 to teach math at Okolona Junior College. It was there that she met Dolan Falconer, and the two married the same year. They had three children, Dolan Falconer Jr., Dr. Alice Falconer Wilson, and Dr. Walter Falconer. The couple remained married until Dolan’s death in 1990.

During the summer of 1962, Falconer began attending the National Science Foundation (NSF) Teacher Training Institute summer program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign while beginning her PhD studies at the University of Illinois. In 1963, she left Okolona College to accept a teaching position at Howard High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Falconer was named institute director of NSF in 1964. When her husband was offered a coaching position at Morris Brown College, the family relocated to Atlanta, Georgia. Falconer began teaching at Spelman College in 1965. She was awarded an NSF Faculty Fellowship (1967-1969) that enabled her to teach part time, while completing her PhD at Emory University.

In 1969, Falconer became the eleventh African American woman to receive a PhD in mathematics. She specialized in abstract algebra. In 1971, when her husband accepted a position in Virginia, Falconer obtained a position as an associate professor of mathematics at Norfolk State College. After a year, they returned to Georgia, and Falconer returned to Spelman College. From 1972 to 1985, Etta Falconer was a professor of mathematics and chairperson of the Mathematics Department a Spelman.

Additionally, Falconer chaired the Natural Sciences Division from 1975 to 1990. She also became one of the first African American women in the nation to earn a master’s degree in computer science, which she received from Atlanta University in 1982. While teaching at Spelman College, Falconer was responsible for instituting a summer science program for pre-freshmen, an annual Spring Science Day, the NASA Women in Science Program, the NASA Undergraduate Science Research Program, and the College Honors Program. She was also founder of the local chapter of the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM).

Falconer was awarded the UNCF Distinguished Faculty Award (1986-1987), the Spelman Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching (1988), the Spelman Presidential Faculty Award for Distinguished Service (1994), NAM’s Distinguished Service Award (1994), the AWM Louise Hay Award, for outstanding achievements in mathematics education (1995), QEM’s Giants in Science Award (1995), and an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1996). She was also a member of countless panels, societies, organizations, and committees.

Dr. Etta Zuber Falconer died of pancreatic cancer on September 18, 2002, in Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of sixty-eight. She is survived by her three children.