Gloria Ford Gilmer

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Gloria Ford Gilmer
Baltimore, Maryland
ResidenceMilwaukee, Wisconsin
Alma materMorgan State University; University of Pennsylvania; Marquette University
Known forEthnomathematics
Scientific career
FieldsMathematics, Ethnomathematics, Education
Thesis"Effects Of Small Discussion Groups On Self-Paced Instruction In a Developmental Algebra Course" (1978)

Gloria C. Gilmer (née Ford; b. Baltimore, Maryland) is an American mathematician and educator, notable for being the first African American woman to publish a non-PhD thesis. She was in line to be the fourth African American woman to earn a PhD until she took time off to raise a family, though she later went on to acquire it, still being one of the first few.

Personal life[edit]

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Gilmer currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and works with Math-Tech Milwaukee, devoting her time to further the mathematics careers of women and minorities.[1]

Education and mathematical work[edit]

Gilmer received her B.S. in Mathematics in 1949 from Morgan State University, a historically black college (HBCU) in Baltimore.[2] After receiving her M.A. in Mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, she went on to profess at six other HBCUs. A year into the doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she took a break to raise a family and work outside of the university system. She later returned to school to acquire her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction (a variation of an Education degree) from Marquette University, a private religious institution in Milwaukee.

Gilmer used both her education and personal background to cultivate research in the field of ethnomathematics. While the term was introduced by the Brazilian educator and mathematician Ubiratan D'Ambrosio in 1977 during a presentation for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Gilmer is considered[by whom?] a leader in the field and began work in the unnamed field beforehand.[citation needed]


Ethnomathematics is the study of the intersection of culture and mathematics. The field suggests that mathematics is not purely abstract numbers and symbols, as many who use it, such as indigenous cultures, may lack traditional number systems (see: Pirahã language, non-Spanish-influenced Guaraní language) or simply lack a writing system entirely (see: pre-1900s Ainu). Gilmer's work in the field deals with African American culture, which has both a traditional number system and a writing system, similar to that of the English-, Spanish-, French- and many Amerindian language-speakers (does not include, for example, Cherokee which has its own, non-Roman syllabary system) in the United States, providing an interpretation of ethnomathematics that doesn't focus solely on indigenous cultures.

Based on fieldwork in 1998 in New York and Baltimore, Gilmer and her assistants, 14-year-old Stephanie Desgrottes and teacher Mary Potter, observed and interviewed both hair stylists and customers in the two cities' salons, inquiring about tessellations in box braids (box-shaped tessellations resembling brick walls) and triangular braids (tessellations resembling equilateral triangles), two styles that restrict the movement of the hair when the head is tossed. While these hair stylists do not generally think of what they do as mathematical, Gilmer detailed the many mathematically-based patterns in these and other types of braiding and how they are found in nature, such as the tessellating hexagons found in braids that resembles the flesh of pineapples and the honeycombs in beehives. As an educator, Gilmer used these results to create classroom activities for students to understand the mathematics of hair braiding.

Following suite, others have since looked at ethnomathematical practices used in indigenous African communities. A year later in 1999, Paulus Gerdes researched a hexagonal weaving pattern — in a sense, a practice related to braiding — in Mozambique that is also found in several parts of Africa, including Cameroon and Congo. Ron Englash discusses the extent to which certain African tribes use fractal patterns and whether or not the concept of fractals was generally understood in pre-colonial African knowledge systems in his book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design.

List of published works[edit]

  • Mishoe, Luna I., and Gloria C. Ford. "On the Limit of the Coefficients of the Eigenfunction Series Associated with a Certain Non-self-adjoint Differential System." Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society 7.2 (1956): 260.
  • Mishoe, Luna, and G. C. Ford. "On the Uniform Convergence of a Certain Eigenfunction Series." Pacific Journal of Mathematics 6.2 (1956): 271-78.
  • "Mathematical Patterns in African American Hairstyles" (1998)


Besides her most notable achievement of being the first African American woman to write a non-PhD thesis (and to otherwise be one of the first to achieve a PhD), Gilmer has held esteemed positions in mathematical societies and broken barriers as a woman of color in mathematics. In the early 1980s, she was the first African American woman to be on the board of governors of the Mathematical Association of America. In 1985 she co-founded and was the first president of Executive Board of International Study Group on Ethnomathematics (ISGEm), where she still currently serves a lesser role. She has had the honor to be a research associate of the United States Department of Education and to have been the first African American woman to give the National Association of Mathematicians' Cox-Talbot address, a lecture given by prominent African American mathematicians.

She is currently a president of Math-Tech, a corporation that aims to take new research material and create more effective mathematics curricula for women and minorities.[3][4][5]


  1. ^ "Biographies of Women Mathematicians: Gloria Ford Gilmer". Agnes Scott College. Retrieved June 1, 2014.
  2. ^ Addison, Eric (October 27, 2011). "Giving back by the numbers: Gloria Ford Gilmer, Ph.D., '49". Morgan Magazine (1). Morgan State University. p. 16. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  3. ^ Gloria Ford Gilmer
  4. ^ Mathematical Patterns in African American Hairstyles
  5. ^ Bangura, Abdul Karim. African Mathematics: From Bones to Computers. Lanham, MD: U of America, 2012. Print.