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 Americaby 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.

Sources:

- “Elbert Frank Cox” by Johnny L. Houston of the National Association of Mathematicians, reposted by the Mathematical Association of America
- “Evansville Honors the First Black Ph.D. in Mathematics and His Family” by Talitha M. Washington,
*Notices of the American Mathematician Society* - “Math Department Honors CU pioneer Elbert Cox, first black math Ph.D.” by Lissa Harris
- The Mathematics Genealogy Website
- Wikipedia

Tags: Mathematicians

February 7, 2022 at 10:58 am |

[…] the board of governors for the Mathematical Association of America, and the first women to give the Cox-Talbot Address for the National Association of Mathematicians. In 1985 she, along with Ubiratan D’Ambrosio, […]