Auburn’s First Female Physics Graduate
By Candis Birchfield
Aurelia Powell Henson (1926-2009), was Auburn University’s first female physics alumna. In a 2001 interview with Aurelia, she explained that her keen interest in physics and mathematics was developed in early childhood in Columbus, Georgia. Her father, a Georgia Tech graduate and teacher, stimulated her curiosity in the mysteries of life and the universe with a pursuit of answers to common questions and a readiness to draw her attention to the scientific wonders of the natural world.
An early memory she recalled was of her father waking her up in the middle of the night to observe an eclipse of the moon and to explain the phenomena.
Because of her father’s influence and her own natural interest in science and mathematics, Aurelia sought an undergraduate degree in physics.
After high school, she attended an all-female college in Georgia for two years before transferring to Auburn University, where she studied under the direction of Drs. Fred Allison, Howard Carr, and Gordon Hughes, among others. She graduated with a bachelor of science in physics in August 1947.
While a senior, Aurelia was a physics lab assistant, and after graduation she stayed on as a physics instructor until 1949. Her plans to begin work on a master’s degree were delayed when she met a returning WWII veteran, Curtis Henson. The two were married in 1948 and later had two children, Marcia Ward and Jane Gumbiner, mathematics ’73.
After teaching math and science at a high school in Mobile County, Aurelia and her husband returned to Auburn in the fall of 1957 to further their studies.
Aurelia received a master’s degree in mathematics in 1959, and her husband, Curtis, has three degrees from Auburn — a bachelor of science in education, a master’s in agricultural education, and a doctorate in education that he received in 1960.
Aurelia’s career included teaching mathematics at the University of Tennessee and physics at Kansas Junior College in Kansas City. When Aurelia and Curtis moved to Atlanta, she began her tenure with the Fulton County school system as a high school mathematics teacher, and she retired in 1987 as the mathematics coordinator for the system.
Through the years, Aurelia had opportunities to continue her studies at Penn State University, the University of Tennessee, and Georgia State University. A member of The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, she served as president of the Georgia Council of Teachers of Mathematics. During her 37-year career, she amassed a lengthy list of professional responsibilities, experiences and honors.