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Jun 23, 2011

Celebrating statisticians: Gertrude Cox

This month, we celebrate Gertrude Mary Cox, one of the pioneers of academic statistics departments in the United States and one of the first female statisticians. She has been dubbed the "First Lady of Statistics." Her efforts were fundamental to the development of the vibrant statistics community in the Research Triangle of North Carolina. She was the founder of the first independent statistics department in the nation, established at North Carolina State University in 1940. I am a proud graduate of the statistics department at NC State (as are many other SAS employees). I have heard the stories of Gertrude Cox many times at departmental events, including graduation ceremony addresses.

Gertrude Cox was born in 1900 in Iowa, and studied mathematics and statistics at Iowa State. After a couple years studying psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, she worked for George Snedecor in the Iowa State mathematics department while working on a PhD in statistics. Before she was able to complete the PhD, opportunity knocked.

The president of the University of North Carolina (after a meeting with Snedecor) decided to start a statistics department in North Carolina, similar to the one at Iowa State. The decision was made to put that department at North Carolina State in Raleigh.  Snedecor at Iowa State was asked to identify good candidates for developing this new statistics program. Gertrude saw the letter where he had recommended a list of all men and asked him why he didn’t include her. In the letter listing his recommendations, Snedecor wrote, "These are the ten best men I can think of. But, if you want the best person, I would recommend Gertrude Cox." A colleague warned Cox that they would never listen to a woman in the South, but she accepted the position anyway.

Cox started at NC State in late 1940, and the statistics department was established in early 1941. She was the first female full professor at NC State, and fully took on the challenge of creating a world-class statistics department, devoted to teaching, consulting and computing services in the School of Agriculture.  In the next 20 years, she expanded the presence of statistics in North Carolina in many ways. She was instrumental in creating an Institute of Statistics, which included the NC State department and helped to create statistics and biostatistics departments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Later, she became the first head of the Statistics Research Division at Research Triangle Institute (RTI).

Cox was made a Fellow of the American Statistical Association in 1944. In 1956, she served as president of the American Statistical Association. She was also involved in many other statistical societies around the world, including the International Statistical Institute, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Biometric Society. She was even made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1957.

The legacy of Gertrude Cox is strong at NC State. My first meeting with my undergraduate adviser prior to starting college was in Cox Hall, named in her honor in 1970. (The department has since moved out of Cox Hall and is now housed in a new building, SAS Hall.) There is a an award -- the Gertrude Cox Award for Innovative Excellence in Teaching and Learning with Technology -- established to promote effectiveness in the use of technology in teaching across all of NC State. In addition, the Gertrude M. Cox Fellowship Fund provides support for graduate students in statistics at NC State. The story about Snedecor adding Cox to the list of candidates was legendary, repeated at multiple departmental graduation ceremonies that I attended during my time at NC State.

We will have another post with more recollections of Gertrude Cox on April 3 by Helena Hoen, the great-niece of Cox. I am grateful to Helena for her offer to share her recollections and for her help with this blog post.


1. "Gertrude M. Cox," ASA Statisticians in History website (accessed March 27, 2013).

2. "Gertrude Mary Cox," Wikipedia (accessed March 25, 2013).

3. David Salsburg, The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century, 2001.

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Celebrating statisticians: More on Gertrude Cox wrote:

[...] has moved SAS Blogs Home > JMP Blog > Celebrating statisticians: More on Gertrude Cox « Celebrating statisticians: Gertrude Cox Celebrating statisticians: More on Gertrude Cox Helena Hoen|April 3, 2013 [...]

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Rhonda Drake wrote:

What a wonderful post about an amazing woman. She paved the way for many others (myself included) to pursue a career in statistics. Thanks for this terrific account of Gertrude Cox's life and contributions.

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Gerardo Hurtado wrote:

Very good note, Michael!...

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Michele Reeves wrote:

Go Gertrude! She helped pave the way for women in STEM careers. Thanks for sharing her-story and reminding us that "excellence" is what rises to the top.

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