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Dr. Gloria Hewitt: One of the First African-American Woman to Receive a PhD in Mathematics

This profile on Dr. Gloria Hewitt is the sixth post in a month-long series of profiles about female STEM innovators in honor of Women’s History Month. Check back each weekday to read a new profile. 

A woman’s place in the scientific and mathematic world has been extremely limited throughout history and into the 21st century. Of the total math and statistics degrees awarded at the bachelor’s and master’s levels before 2016, less than half are awarded to women1. The percentage of female degree holders in these fields plummets to less than 30% when doctoral degrees are examined1

Many students find math to be one of the most complicated and difficult subjects. Dr. Gloria Hewitt was one such student. Throughout her childhood and young adult life, Dr. Hewitt struggled with mathematics, but was so personally rewarded by solving equations that she persevered to become one of the first African-American woman to receive a doctoral degree in mathematics2

Dr. Hewitt was born in South Carolina in 1935 to supportive parents who emphasized the importance of education3.  

“My parents believed that education was the only avenue through which an African American man or woman could better them selves [sic]. Therefore, they encouraged all of their children to attend college,” the Network of Minorities in Mathematical Science reported as said by Dr. Hewitt. “While we were not wealthy, by the standards around us, I always thought we were middle class. I was proud of the fact that my parents could vote in the presidential election. Not everyone could in those days.3” 

Dr. Hewitt appreciated and was fueled by her parents’ support. Once she graduated high school, she sat for entrance examinations at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee3. Though she was accepted into the university, Dr. Hewitt received low scores on the university’s entrance exams and was placed in a low-level math class until the head of the Mathematics Department saw her potential and encouraged her to enroll in calculus the following year3. This decision to enroll in higher-level math courses persuaded Dr. Hewitt to switch her major from nursing to math, with the new goal of becoming a high school math teacher. 

Dr. Hewitt realized her love for solving challenging problems during this calculus class. 

“I remember when I took calculus in college the only book I took home over the Christmas holidays was my calculus book. I wanted to do those word problems. I worked on one problem for the whole two weeks before I solved it. It wasn’t that hard, but I just didn’t understand the process involved," the Network of Minorities in Mathematical Science reported as said by Dr. Hewitt. "When the light dawned, I was so happy! I don’t believe I ever felt so rewarded. It was a major breakthrough. I was hooked. After that, to the amazement of my fellow students, I recall sitting on campus doing calculus problems for recreation.3” 

During her time at Fisk, Dr. Hewitt got married at 18 and had a son soon after3. Her parents’ continued support and stress on education allowed Dr. Hewitt to finish her undergraduate degree, earning a B.A. in mathematics in 19563. After graduation, the same department chair that encouraged Dr. Hewitt to enroll in a calculus course recommended her to graduate programs at other universities3. Through these recommendations, she enrolled at the University of Washington where she earned an M.S. in Mathematics in 19603. Dr. Hewitt then became a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Montana in Missoula in 1961 while completing a PhD in mathematics at the University of Washington, becoming one of the first African American woman to a doctoral degree in this field4.   

As a faculty member at the University of Montana, Dr. Hewitt continued to advance in her career to become an Associate Professor in 1966, a Full Professor in 1973, then Department Chair for Mathematics from 1995 to 1999 until she retired to become a Professor Emeritus4

During her extensive career, Dr. Hewitt worked on the national Advanced Placement (AP) calculus curriculum and exams, served on the executive council of Pi Mu Epsilon, on the committee for the GRE’s math section, worked with the National Association of Mathematicians, the American Mathematical Society, and the Mathematical Association of America3. She also received numerous awards for her work including a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation, a Certificate of Appreciation from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and, in 2018, the University of Washington established the Gloria Hewitt Endowed Graduate Student Support Fund in her honor5

 

References: 

  1. National Science Foundation. (2019, March 8). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Retrieved from https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/digest/field-of-degree-women#mathematics-and-statistics.   

  1. Agnes Scott College. (2019, February 2). Biographies of Women Mathematicians. Retrieved from https://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/hewitt.htm

  1. The Network of Minorities in Mathematical Sciences. (2020). Gloria Conyers Hewitt Retrieved from https://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/honorees/gloria-conyers-hewitt/.  

  1. Black Past. (2019, November 24). Gloria Conyers Hewitt (1935-). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/gloria-conyers-hewitt-1935/

  1. University of Washington. (2018, April 3). Gloria Hewitt Graduate Support Fund established. Retrieved from https://math.washington.edu/news/2018/04/03/gloria-hewitt-graduate-support-fund-established.