Dr. Elbert Frank Cox: Kappa Man and First Black Ph.D. in Mathematics


As noted in other articles, African American history can be defined, in-part, as the history of members of The Divine Nine black Greek-letter organizations. Kennethdprice.com is seeking to capture compelling stories of remarkable members of these organizations as a historical portal. It is our goal to not only rekindle the fire of achievement to burn even brighter, but also to provide young people of all races, and particularly of African descent, an opportunity to celebrate history and challenge themselves as future leaders. This collection will serve as a history resource from which students can obtain topics for school papers. As a 35-year member in Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., I salute not only great men of this organization, but equally astounding men and women whose journey brought them to: Alpha Phi Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Omega Psi Phi, Zeta Phi Beta, Iota Phi Theta, Sigma Gamma Rho, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and Phi Beta Sigma. Please Contact US to add your articles to this collection.

 
By Kevin Scott, Grand Historian
Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.
August 9, 2014

 

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Elbert Frank Cox, Kappa Alpha Psi, born in 1895 and a native of Evansville, Indiana, was the first Black in the world to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics.

Elbert Frank Cox, born in 1895 and a native of Evansville, Indiana, was the first Black in the world to receive a Ph. D. in mathematics.

He was a talented violinist but also showed remarkable talents in mathematics and physics early in his education. Cox’s music talents awarded him a music scholarship which would have enabled him to travel to Europe to study at the Prague Conservatory of Music. However, his love of mathematics won over and he entered Indiana University, ultimately receiving an A.B. in 1917 having majored in mathematics and scored an “A” in every mathematics examination he took. While attending school at Indiana University, he was initiated into the Alpha Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity in 1915. Following his graduation, he was subsequently appointed as a mathematics teacher at Alves Street School in Henderson, Kentucky, but early in 1918 he resigned and enlisted in the army. As World War I drew to a close, Cox was sent to France where he served until 1919 when he was discharged.

After returning to the United States, Cox was appointed to Shaw University, where he became chairman of the Department of Natural Sciences. In December 1921 he applied for a graduate scholarship at Cornell University, then only one of seven universities in the United States offering a Ph.D. program in mathematics.

Cox received the scholarship and entered Cornell in September 1922. In 1924 he was awarded the Erastus Brooks Fellowship. In 1925 Cox was awarded his doctorate for his thesis “Polynomial Solutions of Difference Equations”. His accomplishment helped to make it possible for other Black mathematicians, to receive their doctorates from American universities.

Cox’s success is underscored by the extreme difficulties he endured to obtain his doctorate that were unprecedented. In particular, the United States only produced a total of 28 Ph.D.’s in mathematics in 1925 (one of whom was Cox), while this was the era of the Ku Klux Klan with 31 African-Americans being murdered by lynching in 1926.

After receiving his doctorate, Cox was appointed as professor of physics at West Virginia State College. Cox was only the second faculty member to hold a doctorate and he set about trying to raise the level of the College which did not even possess a science library. In 1928, Cox was appointed associate professor of mathematics at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

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Cox had little opportunity to continue with his research. The heavy workloads and lack of financial support in the Historically Black Colleges made it nearly impossible to carry on any type of research program and produce publications needed to achieve a scientific reputation. However Cox was an outstanding teacher of mathematics. Year after year, under his tutelage, master’s students consistently did much better in departmental oral examinations.

During the years of World War II, Cox contributed to the war effort by teaching engineering science and war management from 1942 to 1944 and also headed a specialist army training program from 1943 to 1945. He was promoted to full professor at Howard University in 1947 and served twice as head of mathematics before it combined with physics in 1957.

In 1957 the departments of mathematics and physics were merged, and Cox chaired the combined department until 1961. He retired in 1966 with the reputation of having supervised more master’s theses than any other member of Howard’s faculty.

After Cox retired he hoped to be able to return to research and writing about mathematics. However his health was not sufficiently good to let him achieve that. He died in 1969 in Washington, DC after a short illness.

Although the mathematics Ph.D. program at Howard only started after Cox’s death, he 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 master’s levels.

In 1975, the Howard University Mathematics Department established the Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund to encourage young Black undergraduates to pursue mathematics studies at the graduate level. The National Association of Mathematicians honored Cox with the inauguration of the annual Cox-Talbot Address in 1980.


 

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