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Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville, 99, who was one of first two African American women to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from an American university – both in 1949, died peacefully at her apartment in Silver Spring, MD on June 27, 2023. During her long life, she performed pioneering work in the field of computing; raised chickens; and sold catfish in Texas.
Evelyn Boyd was born on May 1, 1924 in Washington, D.C., the second daughter of William and Julia Walker Boyd. Her parents separated when she was young, and she was raised by her mother and aunt. Boyd was valedictorian at Dunbar High School, which at that time was a segregated but academically competitive school for black students in Washington. Boyd was always aware that discrimination defined much of her world, but she did not feel constrained by the knowledge or the fact.
With financial support from her aunt and a small partial scholarship from Phi Delta Kappa (professional organization for educators), Boyd entered Smith College in the fall of 1941 with the intention of becoming a French teacher, but mathematics, physics and astronomy drew her away from "uninteresting" French literature. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and to Sigma Xi and graduated summa cum laude in 1945. Encouraged by a graduate scholarship, she entered Yale University that fall, where she studied functional analysis, finishing her doctorate in 1949, with a dissertation "On Laguerre Series in the Complex Domain".
Following graduate school, Boyd went to New York University Institute for Mathematics and performed research and teaching there. Afterwards, she took a teaching position at Fisk University, a historically black college, because postings at predominantly white colleges were not available to black women. But in 1952 she left academia and returned to Washington with a position at the National Bureau of Standards. In 1956, a new door opened. Granville was recruited to a position with IBM, where she was seated before a 650 Magnetic Drum Data-Processing Machine and asked to do programming. Three years later, NASA was formed, and the fledgling agency contracted with IBM to help launch satellites and manned capsules outward, closer to the stars. Another door.
She was assigned first to Project Vanguard and Mercury, writing programs to track the orbital trajectories of satellites and rockets. Later, she joined Project Apollo, providing technical support to the engineers working to make possible a lunar landing.
After nearly two decades in the private sector, Boyd did, eventually, become a teacher. It was 1967. She was living in Los Angeles, in the midst of a divorce from her first husband, and IBM was asking her to move again, to Northern California. The divorce was destabilizing enough; she said no to IBM. She wanted to stay in place. She applied to be an assistant professor of mathematics at California State University, Los Angeles, got the job – as a full professor – and gladly took a 50 percent pay cut. There she taught and wrote textbooks on how to teach mathematics and, there, she finished her career—sort of.
Her first retirement was 1984, when she and her second husband, Edward V. Granville, a realtor, left L.A. for a rural 16-acre plot of land in East Texas, his place of birth. They shared a lovely, quiet home, but Granville was soon teaching again, first at the local public schools, and then at Texas College, from which she retired in 1988. Two years later she started teaching at the University of Texas in Tyler as the Sam A. Lindsey Professor of mathematics. There she developed elementary school math enrichment programs.
After Ed died, she returned to Washington, DC in 2010 and finally settled into retirement, where she regularly bristled when she heard anyone say that "women can't do math".
Granville received honorary doctorates from Smith College, Lincoln University, Spelman College and Yale University. She also received the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal, the Yale Graduate School Alumni Association's highest honor; and was featured in a Yale Alumni Magazine cover story about 150 Years of Women at Yale. Granville was a National Academy of Engineering honoree; and was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences Portrait Collection of African Americans in Science.