Gertrude M. Cox: First Lady of Statistics


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Cox's graduation, 1929

Born in 1900, Gertrude Mary Cox had a luminous career as a statistician. She came to NC State in 1940 to establish the university's distinguished Department of Statistics. Cox is also well known in North Carolina for her role in starting up the Research Triangle Institute (RTI). She headed the Statistics Research Division at RTI from 1959 to 1964 and brought together statisticians from area universities.














Her lifelong interest in statistics began at Iowa State University, where Cox earned a B.S. in 1929, an M.S. in 1931, and an honorary Ph.D. in 1958. She describes her start in statistics: I majored in math ... because I liked it and because I could elect all the psychology and craft courses that I needed. I was working my way through college and managed to land a job in the computing laboratory. In that manner I became interested in statistics. By the time I graduated, I was as well trained in psychology and crafts as in math but I was already in statistics. Consequently, I stayed on in that field. (News and Observer, 29 March 1959).





photo of Iowa State University






Cox was a member of Phi Mu Epsilon at Iowa State University, 1929

Phi Mu Epsilon at Iowa State University, 1929



Cox was an accomplished batik artist. This letter from the New York Society of Craftsmen is an acceptance of some of her work for a show, 11 December 1930.

Letter from the New York Society of Craftsment regarding  the acceptance of Cox's batik hanging for an exhibit in 1930


Cox was a pioneer in the newly formed discipline of statistics and one of the first women in the field. While some women studied mathematics and the sciences, higher education was still predominantly a male world. At the time of Cox's birth, women could not vote. It was not until 1920, when she was twenty years old, that the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. The Historical Dictionary of Women’s Education in the United States notes that:

Both historians and contemporary analysts point to problems in, first, the educational process and, then, career building that discourage girls’ and women’s equal participation with men in sciences. Historians find a systematic exclusion of women from graduate education and career opportunities that would have allowed full development of their scientific inclinations. [Linda Eisenmann, editor, (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998): 349.]

Cox's accomplishments are all the more astounding given the climate in the country and in academia at the time. Perhaps the fact that her alma mater was one of the more progressive universities, admitting women as early as 1859, encouraged Cox to study mathematics and statistics. Iowa State had a history of educating women to be leaders. In fact, Carrie Lane Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters and a key strategist behind the final ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, was Iowa State’s valedictorian in 1880. Cox, another illustrious alumna, became the first woman and the first person to receive a master’s degree in statistics from Iowa State.