Elbert Frank Cox was born in Evansville, Indiana, in December 1895. He earned the baccalaureate degree from the University of Indiana in 1917 with a major in mathematics. After serving in the US Army in France during World War I, he returned to pursue a career in teaching. Before enrolling in the graduate mathematics program at Cornell University in September 1922, he taught mathematics in the public schools in Henderson, Kentucky and later at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1925 he was awarded the Doctor of Philosophy degree in mathematics from Cornell and thus, he is the first known Black to receive the Ph.D. in Mathematics in the United States; in fact, in the world.
Cox's thesis advisor was William Lloyd Garrison Williams, a McGill University mathematics professor from 1924-1952. Before arriving at McGill University, Williams taught at Cornell University, where he met Cox.; Despite having only a bachelor's degree in mathematics, Cox had shown outstanding ability as an instructor at North Carolina's Shaw University, thereby earning the Erastus Brooks Fellowship that allowed him to pursue his Ph.D. at Cornell. The two mathematicians became life-long friends and Williams arranged for Cox to come to Montreal for the final stages of his dissertation on the properties of difference equations.
When Williams realized that Cox had the chance to be recognized not only as the first Black in the United States, but as the first Black in the world to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, he urged his student to send his thesis to a university in another country so that Cox's status in this regard would not be disputed. Universities in England and Germany turned Cox down (possible for reasons of race), but Japan's Imperial University of San Deigo accepted the dissertation.
In September 1925, Cox accepted a teaching position at West Virginia State College. He stayed there four year and in 1929 moved to Howard University. Cox remained at Howard until his retirement in 1965 and served as chairman of the Mathematics Department from 1957-1961. In 1975, the Howard University Mathematics Department, at the time of the inauguration of the Ph.D. program, established the Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund for undergraduate mathematics majors to encourage young Black students to study mathematics at the graduate level.
While Cox did not live to see the inauguration of the Ph.D. program at Howard, it is believed by many that Cox did much to make it possible. Cox helped to build up the department to the point that the Ph.D. program became a practical next step. He gave the department a great deal of credibility; primarily because of this personal prestige as a mathematician, as being the first Black to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, because of the nature and kinds of appointments to the faculty that were made while he chaired the Department, and because of the kinds of students that he attracted to Howard to study mathematics at both the undergraduate and graduate (master's) levels. Cox's portrait hangs in Howard's Mathematics Common Room as a reminder of his contribution to the Mathematics Department, the University, and the Community of scholars in general.
In 1980, the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) honored Cox with the inauguration of the Cox-Talbot Address which is given annually at NAM's National Meeting.
[Johnny L. Houston, Executive Secretary of NAM]
This biography first appeared in NAM's Newsletter, Spring Issue, 1995, p. 4. It has been reprinted with the permission of NAM.