Agnes Scott College

Grace Alele Williams

Grace Williams

December 16, 1932 -

Grace Awani Alele-Williams was the first Nigerian woman to receive a doctorate degree. She was born in Warri, Nigeria, in 1932. She attended the Government School in Warri, then Queens College, Lagos, and the University College of Ibaden (now the University of Ibaden). After completing her undergraduate education she became a mathematics master at Queen's School, Ede Osun State, from 1954 until 1957.

Dissatisfied with her situation at Queen's School, Alele managed to obtain financial assistance from the Nigerian Head of Service to attend the University of Vermont as a graduate assistant with the goal of becoming a secondary school teacher. She found the weather in Vermont to be cold and also experienced forms of segregation in the rural setting. Soon, however, Sputnik shifted America's attention to the importance of mathematics and education, and Alele had the opportunity to go to the University of Chicago, Columbia, or Harvard. She chose the University of Chicago, and in 1963 obtained her Ph.D. in mathematics education with a dissertation on "Dynamics Of Education In The Birth Of A New Nation: Case Study Of Nigeria."

Alele also married in 1963. Upon her return to Nigeria she became a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Education at the University of Ibaden. In 1965 she joined the faculty at the University of Lagos where she worked until 1985, becoming the first female professor of mathematics education in 1974. During this time she also directed the Institute of Education where she introduced programs to benefit teachers. She participated in the African Mathematics Programme, based at the Educational Development Center of Newton, Massachusetts, whose goal was to consider changes in mathematics education in Africa. She said in a 2004 interview [2] that

"I tried to review the teaching of mathematics in schools, to make sure that the teachers understood the new concept which was already in use in Europe and America. It think we made an appreciable progress. But one of the saddest days of my life was the day the federal commissioner announced in 1978 that modern mathematics was abolished in schools."

In 1985 Alele-Williams became the first female Vice-Chancellor of an African university when she accepted that position at the University of Benin. As she stated in the 2004 interview [2]:

"The excitement I felt on receiving the news from Professor Jubril Aminu (the then Minister of Education) had more to do with seeing it in terms of opening up the field for women than anything else. I saw it as an opportunity to show that women too could rise up to the occasion. Also, I knew what the weight of the expectations of the women were. They were eager to see how things would go and I was not going to let them down. Mind you, those who appointed me felt I was qualified for it; so it was not just a case of wanting to satisfy the yearnings of the womenfolk. It wasn't that simplistic."

She remained as Vice-Chancellor until 1991. But as she remarked at a March 2004 talk on Gender Dignity at Lagos State University [1]:

"As long as we are celebrating a woman vice chancellor because she is the first or a woman chief judge because she is the first, then we have not arrived. We look forward to the time when we will have many women in such positions and we will be celebrating so many of them."

Alele-Williams has served as a member of the African Mathematical Union Commission on Women in Mathematics in Africa, and as Vice-President of the Third World Organization for Women in Science. In 1987 she received the Order of the Niger, and in 1994 gave the Distinguished Annual Lecture at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru. She has been elected as a Fellow of the Mathematical Association of Nigeria and the Nigerian Academy of Education.


  1. "Brainstorming on gender equity," Daily Sun , March 30, 2004.
  2. "Power of Grace," interview in THISDAY Online, November 16, 2004.
  3. "How we got to the top," Daily Sun , November 15, 2005.
  4. Karin-Therese Howell and Nancy Ann Neudauer. "Grace Alele-Williams: Nigerian Mathematician of Many Firsts—Breaking Down Barriers and Opening Paths", Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 69, No. 3 (March 2022), 439-445.
  5. Biography at the Black Women in Mathematics website, SUNY Buffalo (Scott Williams).
  6. Author Profile at zbMath