Therese Hance Braithwaite

Born: August 28, 1912 Died: July 1993
Birthplace, a small town in West Virginia

BS in 1928 from Howard University; MS in 1938 from Atlanta University

PhD-Math Education (1973) University of California at Berkeley
thesis: advisors: Committee members were Dale Tillory (Educ-Psych or Educ), Leon Henkin (Math and Mathematics Education)

Therese (Terri) Braithwaite was chair of the math dept at Monte Vista High School (Danville, CA) for some years - until 1977.

The following comments on Dr. Braithwaite are excerpted from The Mathematical Structure of the Whole-Transforming the Human Condition: A Lecture by Grant D. Venerable II, Ph.D. Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Chemistry Lincoln University of Pennsylvania (USA) August 5, 2003 at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology Kumasi, Ghana

Mrs. Therese Hance Hutcherson Braithwaite (1912-1993) attended Howard University as a philosophy major and studied with renowned philosopher Alain Locke. (Historically, philosophy has always been the true basis of the study of mathematics.) She matriculated at Atlanta University in the late 1930s and earned her master of science degree in mathematics before moving to The University of Chicago to pursue a doctorate. It was at Chicago where she met up with A. Adrian Albert, one of the great algebraists of his day. (With the initials A.A.A., his students called him A-cube.) A-cube was a master of group theory and young Therese Hance was an adept student of group theory. Now, you should be forewarned that the study of group theory can bring about strange side-effects to its practitioners. While it enables one to know the unknown through the judicious manipulation of a few known symbols, it can sometimes lead to unknown knowledge one did not bargain for. And that is exactly what happened to young Miss Hance in 1942 during her graduate study in mathematics at The University of Chicago, when she became despondent one night in her fifth floor room in the International House. She decided to end it all.

But she was raised by parents who had given her a keen sense of body awareness. It is something gestalt psychologists use commonly in their therapeutic technique. She put one leg out the window and before she could get her other leg out the window, her left knee started to itch. That itch suddenly became the entire focus of her life at that moment, because people who are body aware and holistic in their approach to life do that kind of thing. So she brought her leg back into the window to talk to it. In the process, strange thoughts formed in her head and she sat down to write them out in a poem. The poem said,
"Dear little neutronian who lives on a nucleus in an atom of my knee,
If you do not stop jumping around, you are going to cause an atomic blast and
Blow up the universe."

But was it actually so strange? What was happening at The University of Chicago in 1941-44? Some of you will recognize that period as a seminal moment in science history when physicist Enrico Fermi achieved the first self-sustaining, nuclear fission chain reaction (December 1942) under the bleachers of the Alonzo Stagg football field, where the federal government set up its top-secret Manhattan Project. Nobody knew it was there, except project director General Leslie Groves, scientific director Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, and the seventeen scientists working on the actual nuclear pile. So, how did an African American, female graduate student from the hinterlands of West Virginia "know," yet not really consciously know, what was going on in her proximity? Therese did not know how she knew it. She did not even know what she knew. But she was unwittingly dealing with some powerful tools of the mind: Algebraic Group Theory. Structure of the Whole. Supreme Art of Abstraction. She wasn't ready for what she subliminally knew and it drove her into despondency, but finally into a redeeming itch that led her to the words of a strangely stark poem.

The anticlimax to the story is that she unthinkingly left her poem on her desk in Eckhart Hall (which housed the Mathematics Department), where it was noticed by her doctoral mentor who had some vague awareness of what was happening. And so he passed it along to Oppenheimer, who went into a state of academic shock, fearing a security leak somewhere. Little Miss Hance was summoned forthwith to receive a six-week crash course in nuclear physics to see what she knew, as they could not ask her outright what she knew about the atomic bomb project. On testing her at the end of the course, they were relieved that she scored zero, and they thought no more of the matter. Within the next year, Therese had grown disillusioned with graduate school and moved to California to start her high school teaching career; the Board of Education assigned her to the Watts district of Los Angeles, where teachers of color were systematically placed until the 1950s. Sometime after her arrival, the atomic bomb was set off in Alamagordo, New Mexico, USA (1944), and the next year over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. She began to see what she really knew at Chicago. She knew then, and not until then, the meaning of her poem. At UC Berkeley (1973), much later in her career, it became the motive and basis for the doctoral dissertation that Therese Hance Braithwaite wrote on the mathematical structure of the whole!

Here are excerpts from a letter we received from Grant D. Venerable, II concerning Dr. Braithwaite.

It would be a mere 21 years later that I went to Chicago as a graduate student in the chemistry department, where I, too, learned the theory of groups applied to calculating the electronic energy states of aromatic molecules. I received my Ph.D. diploma in 1970 from the very hand of A. Adrian Albert, who was Dean of the Division of Physical; Sciences. Less than a year later (Feb 26, 1971), I was introduced to Terri Braithwaite at her beautiful hillside home in El Cerrito, CA overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and a wide expanse of the Bay. It was there that I extended my understanding of mathematics and theoretical chemistry and physics during my first teaching assignments at Cal Poly State University-San Luis Obispo (1972-78) and at UC Santa Cruz. During that period I met Oscar Criner (now at Texas Southern), who was hopeful that I would join him at San Francisco State. I did not do so at that time, but accepted appointment there - in Black Studies - in 1989.



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