Gertrude Cox: First Lady of Statistics

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NC State's Department of Statistics was founded by Cox, who recruited bright, talented statisticians to come to the university. She was the first woman to receive a professional appointment at NC State and she proved to be a visionary, creating a world-renowned department. Today the statistics department remains one of the oldest and most distinguished in the country. Cox was founding editor of Biometrics, flagship journal of the International Biometric Society, first published in 1945. This distinguished position is now filled by another NC State professor, Marie Davidian. The department remains on the cutting edge, currently directing programs such as NC State's Bioinformatics Research Center.



Portrait of Gertrude M. Cox










Cox's 1940 diary entry after receiving a telegram offering her the position at NC State University

Cox's diary - September 14 & 15, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941 & 1942.  Entry for September 14, 1940 reads, "Proof reading most of the morning.  A telegram "Would you consider appointment head State stat lab here.  Write Experience & Training salary if interested."  I wrote and mailed it off before I got cooled down. Not expecting anything.
Extension Farm-News, November 1940 - "First woman professor  in the history of State College is Miss Gertrude Cox."

An article about Cox in the November 1940 Extension Farm News.



To show its appreciation, NC State honored Cox for her contributions by awarding her a Watauga Medal in 1977 and by naming Cox Hall in her honor in 1970, during Chancellor Caldwell's tenure. The University of North Carolina [UNC] system paid tribute to her by naming her an O. Max Gardner Award recipient in 1959.

Photo of Cox Hall

Cox Hall

Cox Hall:  Cox Hall is named for Gertrude Mary Cox, who organized and served with great distinction as the first Head of the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University, the Institute of Statistics of the University of North Carolina, and the Statistics Research Division of the Research Triangle Institute.  The modern six-story building houses the Office of the Dean of the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and the Departments of Physics and Statistics.  The building contains administrative and faculty offices, classroom and laboratory space, an electronic computer facility, work and study space for graduate students, and a shop for the construction of certain special research equipment.  Architects for the building were Ballard, McKim, and Sawyer of Wilmington, North Carolina.  The building contractor was T. A. Loving Co.
Dr. Cox honored. Gets a kiss from Chancellor Caldwell.


Cox remained a leader in the field of statistics and very active in professional societies. Another first for Cox occurred when she created and served as founding director of the UNC system's Institute of Statistics in 1946. She served as president of the American Statistical Association (ASA) in 1956 and the International Biometric Society from 1968 to 1969. Her colleagues' respect for her work is reflected in the numerous awards and honors she received. Cox was elected a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in 1975 and a fellow of three prominent associations: the Royal Statistical Society in 1957, the American Statistical Association in 1944, and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in 1944. As a leader in the International Statistical Institute, Cox served as a consultant around the world. She took great delight in her travels and wrote lengthy letters to friends and family detailing her adventures.

Cover of the Institute of Statistics  (the Consolidated University of North Carolina), A Record of Research VI, July 1, 1959 to June 30, 1961

Institute of Statistics
Record of Research
July 1, 1959 to June 30, 1961


Certificate from the National Academy of Sciences certificate reads "To all Persons to whom these Presents shall come Greeting.  This Diploma Witnesseth that Gertrude Mary Cox  has been duly elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. in conformity with the provisions

Cox's certificate from the National Academy of Sciences

Letter from Hunter reads "Princeton University, School of Engineering / Applied Science, Department of Civil and Geological Engineering, The Engineering Quadrangle, Princeton, N. J. 08540, April 29, 1975, Miss Gertrude Cox, 1116 Blenheim Drive, Raleigh, North  Carolina 27612, Dear Miss Cox:  What wonderful news to learn that you have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.  You have long deserved honors of this kind and in my view have only added to the prestige of the Academy.  Tady joins me in all best wishes.  Stuart, J. Stuart Hunter, Professor, JSH:jlc"

Letter to Cox congratulating her on her election to the National Academy of Sciences from J. Stuart Hunter, Princeton University




Photo  caption reads "Nine of ten staff members who joined RTI in 1959 attended the Institute's first 10-year luncheon given by Board chairman George Watts Hill.  From left: George Herbert, Lewis Ballard, William Perkins, Ralph Ely, W. J. Thomas, Dr. Harold Richter, Sam Ashton, Maxine Bondy, Mr. Hill, and Gertrude Cox.  Inset: 10-year man A. L. Finkner was unable to attend."

Perhaps one of Cox's most significant accomplishments was her role in founding the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) in North Carolina. The institute began with applied statistical projects in 1959. Later, the Institute of Statistics was transferred to RTI under Cox's leadership. The institute and the Research Triangle Park have significantly improved the quality of life in the state and beyond by attracting high-tech industries to the area and, more importantly, generating research that globally improves our lives. Today, RTI conducts research pertaining to public health, environmental protection, and technological advances, among other endeavors.


Article from "The Hypotenuse," March 1969 reads "If you can spell statistics research, chances are you know that Gertrude Cox is acknowledged as one of its most eminent practitioners anywhere, any time.  If you didn't know, her accomplishments include creating the Institute of Statistics at the Raleigh and Chapel Hill campuses of the consolidated University of North Carolina, and starting RTI's Statistics Research Division.  She was its director until retiring to senior consultant status in 1964.  Dr. Ralph Tyler is a good speller, as might be expected of a former University of Chicago vice president and the director emeritus of the Ford Foundation's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.  Three years ago, when Dr. Ccox and SRD sampling group head and deputy director Dr. Dan Horvitz were attending American Statistical Association meetings in Los Angeles, Dr. Tyler invited them to Palo Alto, Calif., to meet with him and other members of what was then ccalled ECAPE, short for Exploratory Committee on Assessing the Progress of Education.  Division director Dr. Al Finkner pondered the pros and cons of the added overhead expense of the requested extra 200-mile leg to their journey.  He was also troubled because at first he thought they might be going to escape instead of to ECAPE.  finally he concluded that the trip might be worthwhile.  It was.


Letter from Pat Barber which was forwarded to Gertrude Cox  from the University of Michigan reads "Gentlemen: I am interested in becoming a statistician but before I decide, I would like more information in the field for women.  Would you please send me any information you might have?  Thank you.  Yours truly, Pat Barber"

Letter from Pat Barber which was forwarded to Gertrude Cox from the University of Michigan - the letter is dated 17 November 1959.


Cox took great delight in her pioneering role in statistics and in establishing the Statistics Research Division of RTI. She encouraged young women to enter scientific professions, particularly the field of statistics. She strongly believed that women should prepare for a profession, even if they were more interested in matrimony. She stressed that a woman with a B.S. in mathematics could earn more money than in traditional fields available to women in the mid-twentieth century.

Gertrude Cox's December 2, 1959 letter in response to Pat Barber's letter reads "Dear Miss Barber:  Your letter sent to the University of Michigan  for some reason has reached me by way of the University of North Carolina.  I believe very strongly that girls should prepare for a profession, even though their main aim is to get married.  If you are interested in science and mathematics, these are the backgrounds on which statistics is built.  Of course, a well-rounded education in communications, history, economics,  and languages is essential.  The field of statistics as a basic science can be oriented toward the mathematical emphasis or towards the use of statistics to serve other fields.  For our training of experimental statisticians we require a substantial amount of education in other sciences such as biology, physics, and chemistry.   The area of statistics is most interesting and challenging.  With a B.S. degree in mathematics, you would be somewhat limited to computing, but this is better paying than secretarial work.  A higher degree in statistics would permit you to move along about as far as you wish.  In the area of experimental statistics, we cooperate with research workers in other science areas  with the planning and then the evaluation and interpretation of their research results.  I could give a list of a variety of interesting areas  in which I have cooperated such as, the best methods of raising flowers in a greenhouse, development and selection of new varieties of corn,  the nutritional problems among the Indian children in Guatemala, how to sample gold in South Africa, variations in ways to make instant frosting for cakes,  how to evaluate the effectiveness of fly sprays, and many others."  letter continues on the page below.

page 2 of Gertrude Cox's December 2, 1959 letter in response to Pat Barber's letter reads "The field of statistics is certainly wide open to women.  If you are willing to take the mathematics and science courses and then work very hard to get beyond the junior level, there are all sorts of opportunities to go as far as you wish.  There are no good materials on careers in this field for it is a very new science.    I hope this helps you decide whether you are interested in statistics.  Sincerely, Gertrude M. Cox, head  Statistics Research Division

Gertrude Cox's 2 December 2 1959 letter in response to Pat Barber's letter.

All of Cox's work demonstrates a desire to promote the practical application of modern statistics. The programs she developed provided services to agriculture, industry, and government and helped make North Carolina a world center for advanced work in statistics and mathematics. Her writings relate statistics to various subjects, including: education, agriculture, experimental design, biometrics, horticulture, home economics, and nutrition. She was a major international figure in the field of statistics and a beloved mentor to many statisticians. Cox devoted her life to her work and her extraordinary accomplishments clearly reflect her success. Photo of Gertrude Cox on a Camel in front of the pyramids in Egypt.