Elbert Frank Cox

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Elbert Frank Cox
Born 5 December 1895
Died 28 November 1969
Citizenship USA
Nationality USA
Fields Mathematics
Institutions West Virginia State College, Howard University
Alma mater Indiana, Cornell
Doctoral advisor William Lloyd Garrison Williams
Known for Generalised Euler polynomials, generalised Boole summation formula
Spouse Beulah Kaufman
Children James, Eugene Kaufman, Elbert Lucien, Kenneth

Elbert Frank Cox (December 5, 1895–November 28, 1969) was an American mathematician who became the first black person in the world to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. He spent most of his life as a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he was known as an excellent teacher. During his life, he overcame various difficulties which arose because of his race. In his honor, the National Association of Mathematicians established the Cox-Talbot Address, which is annually delivered at the NAM's national meetings. The Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund, which is used to help black students pursue studies, is named in his honor as well. In 1917 after graduating, Cox joined the U.S Army in World War I. After he discharged from the Army, he began his career as a high school math tutor.

College years[edit]

He studied physics and the violin and was offered a scholarship for the latter at Prague Conservatory in Bohemia (at that time part of Austria-Hungary), but he chose to pursue mathematics at Indiana University. He enrolled there in September 1913, 25 years after Robert Judson Aley had been the first to receive a bachelor's degree in mathematics at the university. Cox was also initiated into Kappa Alpha Nu (Kappa Alpha Psi) Fraternity Inc. By 1930, it would rank 2nd in the U.S. (after Howard university) for the number of mathematicians getting a bachelor's degree.

Besides mathematics, Cox took courses in German, English, Latin, history, hygiene, chemistry, education, philosophy and physics. Cox's brother Avalon was at Indiana University as well; there were three other black students in his class. He received his bachelor's degree in 1917, at a time when the transcript of every black student had the word "COLORED" printed across it.

After serving in the US Army in France during World War I, he returned to pursue a career in teaching, as an instructor of mathematics at a high school in Henderson, Kentucky. In December 1921 he applied for admission to Cornell University, one of seven American universities with a doctoral program in mathematics. One of his references wrote a positive letter followed by another letter anticipating "... certain difficulties for the young man because of the fact he is of the colored race." So Cox joined the faculty of Shaw University.[1]

Cox was awarded an Erastus Brooks Fellowship in September 1922, and he enrolled in Cornell University. When Cox's thesis advisor William Lloyd Garrison Williams (also founder of the Canadian Mathematical Society) 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 (possibly for reasons of race), but Japan's Imperial University of San Dei accepted the dissertation. He was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics (Cornell University, 1925), just 39 years after Cornell gave its first Ph.D. in Mathematics (1886).

West Virginia State College[edit]

On September 16, 1925, Cox began teaching mathematics and physics at the then all-black, poorly funded West Virginia State College. Professors with a Ph.D. were a rarity there, and his international connections made him stand out as well. He received a salary of $1800. His influence can be seen in the large number of changes in the curriculum between 1925 and 1928. In 1927, he married Beulah Kaufman, the daughter of a former slave. She was a teacher at an elementary school, and worked with Cox' brother Avalon. He and Beulah had met in 1921 and had courted for six years. Their first child, James, was born in 1928. In 1929, he joined Howard University and moved to Washington, D.C..

Howard University[edit]

Cox started to teach at Howard University in September 1930. It was very different; despite his high credentials, he was outranked by other professors such as William Bauduit and Charles Syphax. Both had published multiple papers; it was only now that Cox published his graduation paper. Williams, his supervisor, tried to pursue recognition for Cox from a university in another country, but had difficulties in doing so. Different universities in England and Germany refused to consider his thesis, but the Tohoku Imperial University in Sendai, Japan did recognize it. It was published in the Tôhoku Mathematical Journal in 1934 [1]. It has been suggested that the refusal of his thesis by English and German universities was because of his race. Being an African American, it was difficult to get a job where he could focus on research rather than teaching. He was, however, very active in teaching: the university's president, James M. Nabrit, remarked that Cox had directed more Master's Degree students than any other professor at Howard's University. His students also performed better than those of other professors, and he was a popular professor. Among his students was his son Elbert Lucien Cox. Cox was promoted to professor in 1947. In 1954 he became head of the department of Mathematics, holding this position until 1961, when he had to quit because he had reached the age of 65. He continued teaching until his retirement in 1966 - three years before his death at age 73 in Washington. Although he did not live to see the first Ph.D. student graduate at Howard, many believe it was mainly due to his contributions that this became possible. Cox' portrait hangs in Howard University's common room.


Elbert and Beulah Kaufman-Cox had four children: James born 1928, Eugene Kaufman born 1930, Elbert Lucien born 1933, and Kenneth, born 1969[clarification needed] but died in infancy.


During his life, Cox published two articles. He expanded on the work Niels Nörlund had done on Euler polynomials as a solution to a particular difference equation[2]; in particular, Cox introduced generalised Euler polynomials and the generalised Boole summation formula as an expansion on the Boole summation formula. He also studied a number of specialised polynomials as solutions for certain differential equations. In his other paper, published in 1947, he mathematically compared three systems of grading. [3]

Sources and further reading[edit]