November 21, 1933 - September 19, 2002
Etta Z. Falconer was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933. She received her A.B. in mathematics from Fisk University in 1953, where her role model was Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville, and her M.S. at the University of Wisconsin in 1954. After receiving her master's degree, she became an Instructor at Okolona College. She taught at Okolona College from 1954 to 1963, then become a teacher in the Chattanooga public school system. She left there after one year to become an Assistant Professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She taught at Spelman College until 1971. During this time, Falconer earned her Ph.D. at Emory University under the direction of Trevor Evans, who insisted that "she was the best of the numerous Ph.D. students he had in his 30 years at Emory" [AWM Newsletter]. She completed her Ph.D. in 1969 on "Quasigroup identities invariant under isotopy" [Abstract], and the following year published her paper on "Isotopy Invariants in Quasigroups" in the Transactions of the American Mathematical Society [Abstract].
Soon after completing her Ph.D., Falconer became an assistant professor of mathematics at Norfolk State University. She remained there for one year and then returned to Spelman College in 1972 as associate professor of mathematics and chairperson of the Mathematics Department. She chaired the department until 1985, and also chaired the Natural Sciences Division at Spelman College from 1975 until 1990.
Professor Falconer was involved in instituting programs to help undergraduates prepare for success in graduate school. Her efforts included the NASA Women in Science Program started in 1987, NASA Undergraduate Science Research Program, and the College Honors Program at Spelman College. She instituted these programs for the purpose of directing high-ability students toward doctoral programs. From the first class of NASA graduates, five entered graduate programs in applied mathematics (Brown University), mathematics (University of Maryland), operations research (Georgia Tech), chemistry (University of Florida), and medicine (Baylor College of Medicine). The success of these five students can be counted as a credit as well as an honor to Professor Falconer's character. She also was a founder of the National Association of Mathematicians, an organization that promotes concerns of black students and mathematicians.
In 1995, Professor Falconer was awarded the AWM Louise Hay Award given to celebrate outstanding achievements in mathematics education. In response to being awarded the Hay award, 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.
Etta Falconer was the Calloway Professor of Mathematics at Spelman College and served as Associate Provost for Science Programs and Policy. In her lifetime, she contributed a great deal to the mathematical community, and yet, in spite of the demands on her time, she continued to insist on teaching mathematics courses because of her desire to stay in touch with students. Professor Falconer was a valued asset in the mathematical world. She was admired and respected by her students as well as her colleagues, and served as a mentor to many.
(Revised, September 2002)
Etta Falconer was awarded the AAAS Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2002 for helping "students of science and mathematics overcome barriers of race and gender to make the transition from high school to college and beyond." She had previously been awarded two Spelman College Presidential Faculty Awards and the United Negro College Fund's Distinguished Faculty Award.
Photo Credit: Photograph is used with permission of the MAA Committee on Participation of Women and is taken from Winning Women Into Mathematics, published by the Mathematical Association of America, 1991.