Elbert Frank Cox: The OG Mathematical PHD!

Elbert Frank Cox: The OG Mathematical PHD!

Elbert Frank Cox: The OG Mathematical PHD!

Elbert Frank Cox was the first Black person in the world ever to receive a Ph.D. in Mathematics (1925, Cornell University). In his 40 year-long teaching career, he taught at Howard University and West Virginia State College. 

Cox was born in Evansville, Indiana, in December 1895. He was one of four African-American students to graduate from the University of Indiana in 1917, where he earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics. Despite his outstanding academic achievement, because of deep racial divides, he was denied membership in the honor society Phi Beta Kappa. 

After college he went on to serve in the U.S. Army in France during World War I and taught mathematics at public schools in Kentucky, and later at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina upon his return.

In 1922, Cox matriculated to Cornell University to begin working on his P.hD. Cornell was the perfect fit for him due in large part due to the founders’ commitment that the university would accept students of color even if all of the enrolled white students “asked for dismissal on this account.” Cox completed his rigorous studies and received his Ph.D. in 1925.

That same year, he accepted a teaching position at West Virginia State College, then in 1929, he transferred to Howard University. Cox remained at Howard until his retirement in 1965, serving as chairman of its mathematics department from 1957-1961. 

Cox didn’t receive as much recognition during his life as he did after he passed away in 1969, but he was the first African American to be admitted into the American Mathematical Society. In 1975, the Howard University Mathematics Department, at the time of the inauguration of the Ph.D. program, established the Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund for undergraduate mathematics majors to encourage young Black students to study mathematics at the graduate level. In 1980, the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) honored Cox with the inauguration of the Cox-Talbot Address in his honor which is delivered annually at NAM's National Meeting. 

After a short illness, Cox died on November 28, 1969.


Unlock the Treasure Chest!

The study of polynomials was central to the work of Elbert Frank Cox. Pictograms are simple visual representations of data that help children start to understand the polynomial concept of using symbols to represent values. If you are thinking this sounds like

pre-algebra, then you would be right. Pictograms provide children with the opportunity to begin seeing what information might be useful to represent in a visual way. They give children a foundational understanding of Elbert Frank Cox’s acclaimed work and study of polynomials.

What can you spy with your mathematical eye? Want to go on a treasure hunt to find out? Let’s go!


  • The objective of this activity is to introduce children to the mathematical concept of using symbols to solve for unknown values known as polynomials.
  • In this game children must think through different simple number combinations to solve for the unknown values which are represented by the different symbols.
  • Once they determine the values of the symbols, they must go one step further and solve the equations with only the symbols in order to Unlock the Treasure Chest.
  • Optional: Grab your Arrrgh Mighty Observation Journal write down the equations (including the symbols) you used to unlock the treasure chest and describe how you did it.