Ethnicity: African American
Year of Birth: 1948
Place of Birth: Pittsburgh, PA
PhD Institution: University of Pittsburgh, 1983
Dissertation Title: A Metric Characterization
of the Irrationals via a Group Operation
Advisor: William Fleissner
MS Institution: University of Pittsburgh, 1978
BA Institution: Yale University, 1970
Melvin Robert Currie was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on November 2, 1948. His father, Robert Melvin Currie, worked at a variety of jobs, including work as a taxicab driver and as a custodian for the Pittsburgh Board of Education. After his mother and father separated in 1954, Currie and his younger brother, Albert Frederick, were raised by their mother and maternal grandparents in their grandparents' home. No one in the immediate household was especially interested in mathematics. Soon after the separation, his mother, Ophelia Jones Currie, entered a training program and became an operating room technician, her career throughout the time her sons were growing up.
Dr. Currie attended public grade school at Lemington Elementary in Pittsburgh, a school for grades one through eight. His skill for mathematics was noticed early. He was among the few chosen to study algebra in the eighth grade. Unfortunately, the teacher was involved in a serious automobile accident, so the students were forced to learn algebra on their own, using self-paced study material. Near the completion of the school year, all the students took a standardized exam to see if they had learned enough to be exempted from high school first-year algebra. Dr. Currie was one of two who passed the exam, but he still chose to take Algebra I again in the ninth grade because he did not feel confident that he had learned the material sufficiently well. He did this with the knowledge that he would, as a consequence, not be able to take calculus as a senior.
Currie did well in algebra and geometry at Peabody High School and decided that he wanted to find a way to take the calculus course his senior year. He intended to enroll in an Algebra II course in summer school after his sophomore year. This plan was sidetracked when the school principal suggested that he apply to a special academic program being held at Yale University. Currie decided to enter the Yale summer program.
In the Yale program (Yale Summer High School) students took courses in English Literature and Mathematics. The mathematics topics included mathematical induction and linear programming. During the first week in the program, Currie approached the mathematics teacher, George Cohan, and told him that he would like to take Algebra II in order to take calculus his senior year. Cohan worked with him outside of class and Currie returned to school in Pittsburgh with a letter verifying that he had completed a course in Algebra II. However, in order to receive credit for his summer endeavor, the Board of Education required Currie to pass an exam. He passed it with an "A", enrolled in trigonometry his junior year, and was selected for the calculus class as a senior.
Currie's mother instilled in him the importance of Education. Her Education after high school had been the schooling she received to become an operating room technician. Her older sister, Geraldine Jones Reynolds, had graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and one of Currie's maternal aunts, Viola Currie, had also graduated from college. He had as male role models his mother's two brothers. His Uncle Robert Jones studied engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. His mother's younger brother is Ahmad Jamal, an internationally acclaimed pianist and composer. Upon graduation from high school, Currie chose to attend Yale University for undergraduate study in mathematics, having been very positively influenced by the summer he spent there as a high school student.
His first mathematics course at Yale, Calculus II, made him question whether or not he really wanted to study mathematics. The course was less satisfying than he thought it would be and he became a bit disenchanted with mathematics. While at Yale, Currie felt privileged to study differential equations with Gustav Hedlund, linear algebra with Walter Feit, and set theory with Abraham Robinson.
Currie had a long-standing interest in the German language, which he had studied since he was a freshman in high school. To further his Education in the language he traveled after his sophomore year to Duesseldorf, in what was then West Germany. To support himself while there, he worked in a bank, where he used German exclusively. Currie was also a member of Yale's varsity track team and ran the 4 x 110-yard relay. This relay team set the Yale record in 1969, a record which still stands at the time of this writing, some thirty years later. Currie was a member of the Yale senior society, Berzelius.
Currie earned his B.A. from Yale with a combined major in mathematics and economics in 1970. He had no interest in studying mathematics in graduate school. He applied to the Harvard Business School and ended up on the wait list. The dean of his residential college at Yale was eager to make an effort to have him moved off the waiting list because of Currie's superior academic performance the spring of his senior year, but Currie requested that he not do so. He was not really interested in going to Harvard Business School. Beyond this, he was convinced that he was going to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. He was not drafted.
Without a clear plan for his future, Currie drove to Alaska with two of his classmates. They found work in a salmon processing plant across the road from the Anchorage airport. The last six weeks of the summer he lived in the cab of an abandoned pickup truck on the grounds of the plant. In mid-September of that year, when temperatures dipped, Currie returned to Pennsylvania to look for a job.
Currie took a job with Gulf Oil as an economic analyst. After three years he requested a leave of absence and traveled for a second time to Germany. After being in Germany a year, he resigned from Gulf and took a position as a mathematics teacher in the public school system of Duesseldorf. In his spare time he penned (a still unpublished) novel. He also found his passion for mathematics rekindled after reading a book on real analysis. After three years in Germany, Currie returned to Pittsburgh and matriculated at the University of Pittsburgh, where he received his M.A. in mathematics in 1978 and his Ph.D. in 1983.
Currie's dissertation, written under the guidance of William Fleissner, was entitled "A Metric Characterization of the Irrationals via a Group Operation". Currie became an assistant professor at Auburn University in Alabama (1983-1986). When he was hired, he was the only African-American professor in Auburn's College of Arts and Science. In 1983 he relocated to Virginia to become Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond.
It was during Currie's four-year stay in Richmond that he was able to indulge his interest in genealogy. In 1989 he found a large number of documents in the Virginia State Archives that helped illuminate a swath of his family history from circa 1735 through the early part of the twentieth century. This began with the discovery of a birth record for his great grandfather (his mother's paternal grandfather) in Lunenburg County, Va. in 1856. The record indicated that his great grandfather was born a slave. (He also learned that this great grandfather, born on November 1, ninety-two years and one day before Currie was born, had cultivated an interest in algebra. His great grandfather had managed to do this without having received any formal Education whatsoever.) The birth record included the name of the owners, which was Blackwell. He was subsequently able to locate, among various family members, pictures of six of his great grandparents as well as the picture of one great-great grandmother, who was born in 1823. He later managed to meet with members of the white family with which his family had been closely associated for almost two centuries in Lunenburg County.
While at the University of Richmond, Currie applied to the National Security Agency, where he has been employed since 1990. He is married to the former Shirley Ann Wacht. They have one daughter, Petra Wacht Currie, born in 1992.