A day to remember - Gertrude Mary Cox

Gertrude May Cox

Anyone who uses statistics, or who is involved in study design, should know who Gertrude Cox was. To be clear: she did not give her name to Cox regression (proportional hazards model). That was Sir David Cox, from Birmingham; 'the other famous Cox-statistician'.

Born January 13, 1900, in Dayton, Iowa, Gertrude M. Cox reflected the upbringing of the times and location. It is said she was "instilled with ethics, moral courage, and determination". Her professional efforts succeeded to make statistics practical for those working in agricultural and biological research. This achievement, together with her strong organizing skills, made her successfully bridge the gap between theoreticians and research workers.

After a bachelor studies in mathematics, she received a master's degree in statistics from Iowa State College in 1931. She then studied psychological statistics and was a graduate assistant at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1933 she returned to Iowa to assist George Snedecor by heading the newly created Statistical Laboratory. Cox answered Snedecor’s call to work as a consultant and manage his Iowa State Statistics Lab of “computers” for the statistical consulting projects.

"Computers", as they referred to them, were the women hired to compute sums of squares and standard deviations on big, cumbersome Merchant and Monroe desk calculators. Because of their attention to detail, women were often sought for this task.

Cox was made a research assistant professor in 1939. During this period she began her research on experimental design. During this period she compiled a series of notes on standard designs, that eventually led to the book 'Experimental Designs', cowritten by William G. Cochran and published in 1950.

Her appointment in 1940 to organize and head a Department of Experimental Statistics in the School of Agriculture at North Carolina State College in Raleigh, seemed to be the result of a footnote in a letter from Snedecor to North Carolina State College, in which he recommended five men. He added,

"Of course if you would consider a woman for this position I would recommend Gertrude Cox of my staff."

In January 1941, the department was established with Cox as the first female full professor and first female department head at North Carolina State College, a propitious choice that changed the course of statistics in North Carolina.

Her skill as an administrator was unsurpassed. She employed outstanding faculty and staff and left them to their teaching and research while she raised funds. In addition to her administrative duties, Cox continued to teach, drawing on her many years of consulting to produce practical real-life examples designed to illustrate experimental designs, all of which were flawlessly computed before the age of computers.

She held many positions that were of great influence on the field of statistics. Among many examples, she was the first woman to be elected president (1956) of the American Statistical Association (founded in 1839).

In addition to her professional achievements, Cox was known for the personal interest she took in relatives, friends, and wives and children of faculty and staff. The memory books in the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University hold many remembrances of her tenure there, from newspaper clippings of awards to the department to wedding invitations for staff and Christmas cards sent and received.

Cox died of leukemia October 17, 1978.


  1. Gertrude M. Cox. Statisticians in History Website. Accessed 12 January 2017
  2. The life and times of Gertrude May Cox, by Helena Hoen on Blogspot. Accessed 12 January 2017.
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