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William W. Shieffelin Claytor


  • Ethnicity: African American
  • Gender: M
  • Year of Birth: 1908
  • Place of Birth: Norfolk, VA


  • PhD Institution: University of Pennsylvania, 1933
  • Dissertation Title: Topological Immersion of Peanian Continua in a Spherical Surface
  • Advisor: J. R. Kline
  • MS Institution: Howard University, 1930
  • BS Institution: Howard University, 1929


William Schieffelin Claytor was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1908. Before entering Howard University as an undergraduate in September 1925, he was educated in the public schools of Washington, DC, and at Hampton Institute, Hampton Virginia. He earned a BS and MS from Howard University in 1929 and 1930, respectively. In 1930 he entered the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1933, under the direction of J.R. Kline, he received the Ph.D. in mathematics. Thus, Claytor was the third black man to earn the Ph.D., following Elbert Cox (Ph.D., Cornell, 1925) and Dudley Woodard, Sr. (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1928) both of whom had taught Claytor at Howard University. Woodard, in fact, supervised Claytor's master's thesis.

Upon completion of the Ph.D., Claytor accepted a teaching position at West Virginia State College where he remained for three years. In 1937 he was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship and pursued post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan where R.L. Wilder had attracted an able and experienced group of topologists. Kline had written Wilder about Claytor's abilities and they both were pleased that Claytor was able to join the group of Michigan topologists which included S. Eilenberg, W.L. Aryes, E.W. Miller. and S.B. Myers.

Claytor's mathematical work on imbeddability in the plane attracted considerable attention throughout the topological community. His work is cited today and topologists from around the world continue to praise his abilities. Claytor's work on Peano Continua is striking. He was able to generalize certain results of Casimir Kuratowski, which mathematicians had been studying for several years prior to Claytor's work.

During World War II, Claytor served in the US. Army (1941-1945) where he taught in the field of Anti-Aircraft Artillery from December 1942 through December 1944. Most likely it was in 1941 that David Blackwell first met Claytor at an army base, Chanute Field, about twenty miles from Urbana, Illinois. The impressions Blackwell formed about Claytor's mathematical genius in the first meeting were continuously reinforced over the years, so that in 1947, the year that Blackwell became Chairman of the Mathematics Department at Howard, Claytor was brought to Howard. Claytor remained at Howard until his retirement in 1965.

Before joining the Howard faculty, Claytor served on the faculties of West Virginia College (1933-1936), Southern University (1945-1946) and Hampton Institute (1946-1947).

Earlier in his career, when the Black institutions were being starved for funds, and had hardly any jobs to offer, Claytor shared the fate of others whose talents and determination had overcome the enormous obstacles placed in their way by racism, at least to the extent of securing graduate degrees.

At the end of his post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan, Claytor was recommended by his colleagues in topology for a faculty position at Michigan. The administration was afraid of the the possible reaction and took a firm stand that no such appointment would be made. The same reaction came from other research institutions that were considered. This meant that Claytor could not get a position with other topologists during his time. After encountering this experience and after leaving Michigan, Claytor apparently lost interest in research. He and R.L. Wilder had achieved some results just before leaving Michigan. They were never written for publication by Claytor. The literature only has records of his two publications while at Michigan.

Because his published works were the first known mathematical research published by a black man and because of his mathematical insight as attested by other great mathematicians of his day, in 1980 NAM named its first Lecture Series in honor of Claytor. Today the Claytor Lecture is still NAM's most well known Lecture.

Johnny L. Houston, Executive Secretary of NAM]

This biography first appeared in the NAM newsletter, Winter Issue, 1994. It has been reprinted with permission from NAM. Further information on Dr. Claytor can be found in the Pennsylvania State Mathematics Department archives.