Archive for January 17th, 2022

Monday Morning Math: Elbert Frank Cox

January 17, 2022

Our Monday morning mathematician is Elbert Frank Cox, the first African-American to receive a PhD in Mathematics.

Elbert Frank Cox was born on December 5, 1895, in Evansville, Indiana.  He was adept in music as well as mathematics and was offered a scholarship to the Prague Conservatory of Music to play violin, but he chose to attend Indiana University to study mathematics; he earned an A in every math class.  He served in France during World War I, then returned to the US and taught (following in the footsteps of his own father, who was teacher and principal of the Third Avenue School).

Cox joined the graduate program at Cornell University, and in 1925 earned his PhD in mathematics: his thesis was entitled “The Polynomial Solutions of the Difference Equation aF(x+1) + bF(x) = Phi(x)”  He taught at West Virginia State College for four years before taking a position at Howard University.  Talitha Washington writes, “In those days many Black scholars migrated to Howard University. In 1929 Cox joined the faculty, and by 1943, Howard University employed five of the eight Black math Ph.D.’s.”  

During the thirty-seven years that Cox was at Howard University he published another paper, directed Masters’ Students (more than any other faculty), and served as department Chair.  Harris notes,

Although the professional societies had African-American members, it was difficult and unpleasant for them to attend meetings, especially as they were frequently not permitted to attend social events or to lodge at the hotels and convention centers where the meetings were held, [James Donaldson] wrote [in A Century of Mathematics in America by the AMS]. Cox allowed his membership in the AMS to lapse shortly after becoming the organization’s first African-American member in 1925, and did not renew it again until 1948. However, he held a membership in Beta Kappa Chi, a black scientific fraternity, which allowed him to maintain contact with the scientific community.

Elbert Cox married Belulah Kaufman (while he was teaching in West Virginia) and they had four children.  Cox passed away in 1969, three years after retiring from Howard University, but his name lives on through honors such as the Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund at Howard University and the Cox-Talbot Address, an annual lecture of the National Association of Mathematicians.

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