Shirley McBay, Pioneering Mathematician, Is Dead at 86

The first Black student to receive a doctorate from the University of Georgia, she devoted her life to advocating for diversity in science and math education.,


Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

Shirley McBay, who in 1966 became the first Black person to receive a doctorate from the University of Georgia, and who went on to be a leading voice for diversity in science and math education, died on Nov. 27 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 86.

Her son Ron McBay said the cause was diabetes and normal pressure hydrocephalus, a form of dementia.

Educated in Georgia’s segregated public schools and several of its historically Black colleges, Dr. McBay enrolled in the University of Georgia’s Ph.D. program in mathematics in 1964, just three years after the school desegregated. At the time, she was among the few Black students on campus and among just a handful of women, Black or white, studying math or science.

None of that deterred her. Already armed with master’s degrees in math and chemistry, she became not just the first Black student to receive a Ph.D. from the university but also the first woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics there. Offered a chance to join the university’s faculty, she declined, opting instead for Spelman College, the historically Black school in Atlanta, where she had already been teaching.

“It’s not always a pleasant time to be an African-American mathematician, even in 2021,” Zerotti Woods, a mathematician at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said in an interview. “For her to do it when she did — I mean, what in the world?”

Dr. McBay made her greatest mark on her field as the dean of student affairs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s. She confronted the challenge of bringing more students from underrepresented minorities into science, technology, engineering and math, both at her university and in higher education broadly.

A 1981 study had found that Black students at M.I.T. were twice as likely to fail a course as their white counterparts, a fact that she and her colleagues ascribed to lingering discrimination and the lack of a critical mass of Black students. As a result, she argued, Black students couldn’t develop or take advantage of the sort of informal networks — like study sessions and note swapping — that helped white students succeed.


Dr. McBay was the subject of an advertisement for IBM that appeared in Ebony magazine in 1974.Credit…via Ebony

Starting in 1987, she undertook a study, called Quality Education for Minorities and funded by M.I.T. and the Carnegie Corporation, to understand why Black students weren’t better represented in those disciplines.

The resulting report, released in 1990, concluded what many people already knew: that the educational pipeline was broken, and that improving Black enrollment required a wholesale rethinking of education from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Educational opportunities for most minority youth, and hence their educational attainments, lag behind the chances, choices and performance of the nonminority,” Dr. McBay and her colleagues wrote in the report’s introduction. “The present system of education learning in a mass education for mass production model is inadequate to the demands the 21st century will place on this nation.”

That same year, Dr. McBay stepped down as dean and took a leave of absence to run a spinoff of the M.I.T. project, the Quality Education for Minorities Network. What was supposed to be a two-year project ended up consuming the rest of her career, as she found her calling as a forceful and energetic advocate for students of color.

She not only helped them get into graduate programs; she also fostered them once they arrived. She set up conferences, taught students and junior faculty how to apply for grants, and invited them to sit on review panels.

“If she believed in you and saw you had a strong work ethic, there was nothing she wouldn’t do for you,” Tasha Innis, a mathematician and the associate provost for research at Spelman, said in an interview. “She pushed you to new heights.”

Shirley Ann Mathis was born on May 4, 1935, in Bainbridge, Ga., a small town in the southwest corner of the state. She was raised by her mother, Annie Bell (Washington) Mathis, a cook and Avon saleswoman; her father, James Mathis, was largely absent from her life.

Showing a gift for numbers from an early age, Shirley reveled in math competitions, besting students much older than she was. She was just 15 when she enrolled at Paine College, in Augusta, Ga., and just 19 when she graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1954.

She then taught chemistry at Spelman and pursued graduate degrees at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), receiving her master’s in chemistry in 1957 and her master’s in mathematics a year later.

She also attended classes at historically Black Morehouse College in Atlanta, including one with Henry McBay, a famed chemistry professor. She was taken with him, and they married in 1954.


“It’s not always a pleasant time to be an African-American mathematician, even in 2021,” a colleague said of Dr. McBay’s accomplishments. “For her to do it when she did — I mean, what in the world?”Credit…Spelman College Archival Collection

Dr. McBay’s husband died in 1995. In addition to her son Ron, she is survived by another son, Michael.

Despite her love for chemistry, Dr. McBay decided against it as a career and entered the doctoral program in mathematics at the University of Chicago in 1961.

By then she had two sons, and she found the stress of living so far away from her family to be too much. She had left Ron, still an infant, in the part-time care of her mother-in-law; when she overheard him call her mother-in-law “Mama,” she decided to transfer to the University of Georgia.

After graduating, she taught at Spelman for another nine years, building the math department into a campus powerhouse and then creating the college’s Division of Natural Sciences. Today more Black women with doctorates in science and engineering have undergraduate degrees from Spelman than any other institution.

The early 1970s saw a rapid increase in Black enrollment in higher education, and Dr. McBay was determined to make the most of it, especially in math and science, where Black students were historically few.

In 1975 she left Spelman for the National Science Foundation, where she developed and ran a program to help minority-focused institutions improve their course offerings and research capacities. Five years later, she moved to M.I.T.

Though Dr. McBay was especially focused on opening up college- and graduate-level opportunities for students of color, she also sounded alarm bells about the growing inequities in the country’s primary and secondary schools, a problem that continues to deepen.

“Left unattended, the resulting resegregation of U.S. education will ensure continued domination of this country’s academic, business and military leadership by nonminorities,” she wrote in the journal Issues in Science and Technology in 2003. “It will reinforce myths about racial superiority. It will further erode the hopes and aspirations of a rapidly growing and younger portion of our population, a population upon which America’s future well-being depends.”

Leave a Reply