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Cox, Gertrude Mary

Published onJul 30, 2021
Cox, Gertrude Mary

(January 13, 1900 - October 17, 1978)

Quick Facts

Alumni who attained the first master’s degree in statistics from Iowa State. A mathematician, statistician, assistant professor of statistics at Iowa State, professor of statistics and head of the department at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.


Gertrude Mary was born on a farm near Dayton, Iowa on January 13, 1900, the daughter of Allen Cox and Emmaline Catherine Moody Cox. Later the family moved to Perry, Iowa where she graduated from high school in 1918. She loved competitive sports and played on the high school girls basketball team. She then studied to become a deaconess in the Methodist Episcopal Church and also took a two-year course in social sciences. Afterward she spent another two years as a housemother for 16 orphan boys in Montana.

She intended to become the superintendent of the orphanage, so she enrolled in Iowa State College (now University) in 1925 taking courses in psychology, sociology, and crafts. However, she decided to major in mathematics because “I liked it and because I could elect all the psychology and craft courses that I needed,” according to an interview in 1959. To pay her college expenses, she performed computing work for George W. Snedecor, associate professor of mathematics, who was also her calculus professor. While an undergraduate, Cox was chaplain of Kappa Phi (society for Christian women) and was also a member of Pi Mu Epsilon (mathematics fraternity.) She graduated in 1929 with a BS in mathematics.

During her undergraduate years, she also became interested in statistics and continued as a graduate student at Iowa State, financing this part of her education with assistantships in psychology and art. She continued her membership in Pi Mu Epsilon and also became a member of Delta Phi Delta (art fraternity), Gamma Sigma Delta (agriculture society), and Phi Kappa Phi (society dedicated to unity and democracy in education.) In 1931, she received an MS in statistics, the first Master's degree in statistics awarded at Iowa State.

Cox then began a doctoral program in psychological statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. She was there for two years, but when Professor Snedecor established the Statistical Laboratory at Iowa State in 1933, she returned to help him. She worked with several members of the psychology department and was put in charge of the computing laboratory. In 1934, she began to teach a course, “Design of Experiments,” to accompany Snedecor's “Statistical Methods,” courses that were required of most graduate students in agriculture and which later became required for other majors as well. Cox's materials were eventually published in 1950 as Experimental Designs which she co-authored with William G. Cochran. A second edition appeared in 1957. She also set up an “Advanced Experimental Design” course.

Cox enrolled in a PhD program in mathematics at Iowa State, but her teaching and consulting duties kept her from finishing the degree. She was appointed research assistant in 1939. The next year, Snedecor was asked to recommend candidates to head the new Department of Experimental Statistics in the School of Agriculture at North Carolina State College, Raleigh. At first, he put only men on his list, but when Cox asked him why he did not include her name, he added her name in the cover letter, writing, “If you would consider a woman for this position, I would recommend Gertrude Cox of my staff.” She was then considered and hired. She became head of that department on November 1, 1940. A few months later, the Board of Trustees, confirmed her appointment with the support of the U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Economics and the Division of Agricultural Statistics of its North Carolina Research Office.

Cox immediately began to expand North Carolina State University's statistics program. She added new faculty members, established a series of one-week conferences, obtained outside funds to hold summer conferences, and obtained a grant to establish an Institute of Statistics. In 1949, she helped establish the Biostatistics Department, the Social Science Statistical Laboratory, and the Psychological Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at the School of Public Health at Chapel Hill. In 1958, she helped establish a Statistical Division for the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) between the campuses at Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

Cox was also active in publishing. She published numerous articles in Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science, the Journal of Educational Psychology, the Iowa State Journal of Science, numerous Iowa Agriculture Experimental Station Bulletins, the Journal of Farm Economics, the Journal of General Psychology, Biometrics, and numerous other professional journals. In 1975, she co-authored an article, “Professional and Personal Glimpses of George W. Snedecor,” in Biometrics.

Cox retired in 1960 from her position at North Carolina State but continued to head the RTI Statistics Research Division until 1965. After her final retirement, she continued consulting with organizations including the the World Health Organization in Guatemala, the Pan American Health Organization, and the U.S. Public Health Service. She served on a number of committees in organizations including the U.S. Bureau of the Budget, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of the Census. She was a co-founder of the International Biometric Society and was awarded life membership in 1964. She also edited the journal Biometric for 12 years. She was a fellow of the American Public Health Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, the Psychometric Society, the Royal Statistical Society, and the Inter-American Statistical Institute. She was so busy in her retirement that she remarked in a letter in 1974, “Think it is a good thing to step-down from full to half-time work before retiring. I went to other jobs the first two times; In fact, I've made a failure of this retirement!”

In 1957, Cox was made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. In 1958, Iowa State conferred on Cox an honorary Doctorate of Science, and the following year, she was awarded the O. Max Gardner Award at the University of North Carolina—the highest award conferred on faculty in that state. In 1970, North Carolina State designated the building on its campus where the Statistics Department was located as Cox Hall. In 1975, she was elected to the National Academy of Science. In 1977, the Gertrude M. Cox Scholarship Fund was established by the Caucus for Women in Statistics.

Gertrude Cox died of leukemia on October 17, 1978 and was interred in Montlawn Memorial Park, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Selected Sources

Sources on Gertrude Mary Cox found at Iowa State University are in the 1929, 1931, and 1937 issues of The Bomb.

There are also some letters and the article on recollections of George Snedecor in the George W. Snedecor Papers, RS 13/24/51, Box 1, Folder 8 and Box 3, Folder 24, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University.

A short but comprehensive review of her life is in Richard L. Anderson, Gertrude Mary Cox, 1900-1978. Washington, D. C. National Academy of Sciences, 1990, pp. 116-132.

She is listed in Graham Upton and Ian Cook, A Dictionary of Statistics, 3rd Edition.; Oxford, England. Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 100-101.

Also see Maryjo Nichols, “Gertrude Mary Cox (1900-1978)” in Women in Mathematics. Westport, CT. 1987, pp. 26-29.

A number of obituaries and other articles on the life of Gertrude Mary Cox were published in the years shortly following her death. They include “Gertrude Mary Cox--1900-1978,” Biometrics, Volume 34, Number 4, 1978, pp. 719-720; R. L. Anderson, R. J. Monroe, and L. A. Nelson, “”Gertrude M. Cox—A Modern Pioneer in Statistics,” Biometrics, Volume 35, Number 1, 1979, pp. 1, 3-7; William G. Cochran, “Some Reflections,” Biometrics, Volume 35, Number 1, 1979, p. 1-2; Frank Yates, “Obituary: Gertrude Mary Cox, 1900-1978,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A, Volume 142, Number 4, 1979, pp. 516-517; Robert J. Monroe and Francis E. McVay, “Gertrude Mary Cox (1900-1978),” American Statistician, Volume 34, Number 1, 1980, p. 48; and Sandra Stinnett, “Women in Statistics: Sesquicentennial Activities,” The American Statistician, Volume 44,Number 2, May, 1990, pp. 74-80. There is also an online exhibit from the North Carolina State University Library entitled, “Gertrude Cox: First Lady of Statistics” at

Interment information can be found online at

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