- Pioneer Elbert Frank Cox was an African-American professor of Mathematics
- Cox made history as the first Black man to receive a doctorate in Mathematics and the first African-American to do so
- Elbert Frank Cox was born on December 5, 1895
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In 1925, Elbert Frank Cox inked his named in the history pages when he joined only 28 doctoral degree holders to become the first African-American to attain that feat.
Making history as the first Black man to receive a doctorate in Mathematics and the first African-American to do so was an exceptional achievement especially when at the time, only 28 doctoral degrees had been awarded in Mathematics in the United States.
Several reports also affirm that prior to Frank Cox attaining that feat, only about 50 Africa-Americans had received doctorates of any kind.
Frank Cox blazed a trail after he received a doctorate from Cornell University as his remarkable achievement paved way for other Black people to become doctoral candidates while aspiring to become future Black mathematicians.
Researchers confirm that regardless of his historic achievement, he was not acknowledged during his lifetime.
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Born on December 5, 1895, Cox became a talented violinist who was awarded a scholarship at the Prague Conservatory of Music to pursue a Bachelor’s degree at Indiana University.
According to Cornell Chronicle, exceptionally brilliant Cox scored an A in every Mathematics course.
Cox was enlisted in the US Army after he graduated and was deployed to France where he subsequently rose to the rank of sergeant.
After years of service to the US Army, he became a professor of Biology, Physics and Chemistry at Shaw University, a black university and secondary school in Raleigh, N.C.
In 1922, Cox left Shaw to enroll at Cornell, after he received a graduate scholarship in Mathematics and an Erastus Brooks Fellowship.
Before attaining this feat, he had applied for admission to Cornell the year prior, but records say ''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.''
After he moved to Cornell, Cox worked hard with William Lloyd Garrison Williams, a former Cornell professor who was his dissertation committee chairman.
After earning his doctorate, Cox taught mathematics and physics at the West Virginia Colored Institute prior to moving to Howard until his retirement in 1966.
Being an African-American academic came with its own challenges at the time and the near absence of support for research and publication had Cox publish only two papers during his lifetime, one of which was his doctoral thesis.
Cox also made history as the first African-American to be inducted into the American Mathematical Society (AMS) but professional organizations such as the AMS were not welcoming to African Americans in that period, which made it difficult for Cox and others to attend meetings or social events.
Regardless of the visible setbacks, Cox, at the time of his retirement from Howard, had supervised more masters’ theses than any other member of the faculty, according to accounts.
The husband and father of three would also motivate other Black people to pursue degrees in Mathematics and Physics.
Scholar Charles W. Carrey Jr., who researched Cox’s life and work, wrote that Cox’s achievement was major factor that enabled other Black mathematicians such as Dudley Welcon Woodard, William Waldron Shiefflin Claytor, Marjorie Lee Brown, Evelyn Boyd Granville and David Blackwell, to receive their doctorates from American universities.
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