African-American Pioneers in Science

Elbert Frank Cox (1895 - 1969)

Elbert Frank Cox Photo



Evansville, Indiana


B.A. Mathematics, Indiana University
Ph.D. Mathematics, Cornell University

  • Elbert Frank Cox
  • African-American pioneer in mathematics
  • First African-American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics (1925)

Mathematician Elbert Frank Cox was born on December 5, 1895 in Evansville, Indiana. He was the eldest of three sons born to Johnson Cox, an elementary school principal, and his wife Eugenia. Raised in a close knit and religious family, Cox learned the importance of education and fostered a talent in mathematics. His abilities led him towards Indiana University, where he studied mathematics, physics, and chemistry. He received his B.A. in mathematics from Indiana in 1917. That same year he entered the Army to serve in World War I and was quickly promoted to staff sergeant. Following discharge, he became a high school math instructor in Henderson, Kentucky.

In 1921, Cox joined the faculty of Shaw University, located in Raleigh, North Carolina, but left two years later after receiving a full scholarship to attend Cornell University and enroll in the mathematics Ph.D. program. His dissertation title at Cornell was The Polynomial Solutions of Difference Equations, AF (X + 1) + BF(X) = Phi(X). Dr. Cox received his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1925 becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D in mathematics. (Thirty nine years after Cornell had awarded its first Ph.D. in mathematics.)

After graduation, Dr. Cox became the department head of mathematics and physics at West Virginia State College, at the time an all-black school. In 1929, he moved to Washington D.C. and joined the faculty at Howard University eventually becoming mathematics department chair in 1947. He remained department chair until his retirement in 1961.

During his career, Dr. Cox made important contributions to abstract mathematics. His research interests were in differential equations and interpolation theory. He introduced generalized Euler polynomials and the Boole summation formula. In addition, Dr. Cox was a dedicated educator and helped shape the grading system at Howard. He taught and advised countless successful students in the math program.

Dr. Cox was an active member of numerous professional organizations, including the American Mathematical Society, the American Physics Institute, and the American Physical Society.