Celebrating statisticians: More on Gertrude Cox

Gertrude Cox is indeed an influential statistician worthy of recognition in this International Year of Statistics. She was also part of my family, my maternal grandmother’s sister. I decided one day to learn more about her and spent numerous hours in the North Carolina University Library Archives where a colleague of hers had deposited everything from her office. I also interviewed willing friends and colleagues of hers in the Raleigh area, whom I contacted using her address book that was 17 years old. Here, I share some of what I’ve learned.

Impact of Gertrude Cox’s Work

Cox was a statistician and consultant with strong administrative skills and the ability to inspire. She used these strengths to build a statistical empire and promote the use of statistics, locally in North Carolina and then nationally and internationally. Prior to R.A. Fisher’s ideas published in the 1920s, researchers relied on their individual instincts to design and analyze their studies. It was difficult to compare results across studies and draw conclusions. With researchers using Fisher’s objective ideas, findings could be published and reproduced. It was about to change the nature of scientific research to produce more reliable conclusions and add rigor and repeatability.

A little help spreading the word gave momentum to the revolution. “I think that [Gertrude Cox] realized earlier and more keenly than almost all of us how useful statistics and the statistical point of view can be in human affairs,” wrote William Cochran in Biometrics in 1979. In an article in the International Statistical Review, Cochran said, “I doubt if anyone contributed more than Gertrude Cox to building up the profession of statistics as we know it today.”

Stumbling into Statistics

Cox initially pursued a career as housemother of an orphanage for young boys in the Midwest. She had become a Methodist Deaconess and then worked at the orphanage. To become housemother, she needed a bachelor’s degree, so she went to Iowa State College and chose to major in math, because, she said in her diary, it was easy.

At Iowa State, George Snedecor was a professor in the Mathematics Department, but recognizing the utility of statistics, had taken the step of offering a statistics course. He managed to bring Fisher to Iowa State for a visit, which rallied excitement for his idea of providing training in statistics in the United States. Cox stayed at Iowa State after earning a bachelor’s in math and became the first person to earn an MS in statistics there. Then in 1933, after a shortened stint at University of California, Berkeley, to begin a PhD program in psychology, Cox answered Snedecor’s call in 1933 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 simultaneously worked on a PhD in statistics, managed the computing group for Snedecor’s Stats Lab, served as a statistical consultant and taught statistics courses, including graduate-level courses in experimental design at Iowa State in the 1930s.

It was there at Iowa State where she first became a colleague of William Cochran. Cochran and Gertrude Cox later wrote the textbook Experimental Designs together, first published in 1950. It was a seminal book that enabled many researchers to apply design theory to their studies, and it is still in print today. Cochran also later served on Cox’s statistics faculty in the Statistical Institute, a combined program across three North Carolina universities encompassing both applied and theoretical focuses.

North Carolina State College

From 1940 to 1960, Cox developed and served as head of the Department of Experimental Statistics in the School of Agriculture at North Carolina State College, initially, and then the combined NC universities’ Statistical Institute later. The Department of Experimental Statistics was likely the first independent statistics department at a university.

In September 1940, Gertrude Cox received a telegram offering her a job to establish and lead a new statistics department at NC State University and requesting information. Cox wrote in a diary entry dated Saturday, Sept. 14, 1940:

Retirement, RTI and International Consulting

Cox retired from North Carolina State University in 1960. NC State was only beginning to think about employee pensions at that time. She mentioned to a friend that they offered only a small one. However, she had contacts outside of NC State she could find work with -- or rather they found her. She helped organize and served as the first Director of the Statistics Research Division at Research Triangle Institute. She retired from RTI in 1965. In her five years there, the statistics program became a strong research organization. In a tribute to her contributions, RTI named a building after her dedicated on 9/9/99. They picked 9/9/99 because it’s easy to remember and numerically aesthetic -- as statisticians would think, numbers are beautiful.

Cox’s influence was truly global. For a year’s time in 1964 and ’65, Cox lived in Cairo to help the Egyptians develop the Institute of Statistical Studies and Research. Throughout her career including post-RTI retirement, Cox consulted internationally. She traveled to Thailand to provide technical and administrative assistance to the Kasetsart (Agricultural) University and to serve as a statistical education adviser to the government of Thailand. She worked in Hawaii with the sugar institute and pineapple growers, in Guatemala for the World Health Organization on childhood nutrition, in El Salvador and Costa Rica for the US Government, in Honduras for United Fruit, and in South Africa on sampling gold.

She especially loved working in developing countries. She liked being around the people who lived and worked there, and they liked and admired her. Cox attended international statistical societies’ meetings in Asia, Europe, Australia, North America and South America. She was in the field of statistics at a very exciting time, and she added her own infectious enthusiasm. And she stayed active throughout her life. In one of her last Christmas letters, she wrote, “All is fine, I’m just a little slower.”

Cox died of leukemia when I was young. I remember her as solid, vibrant and lively up to the very end. I have gotten to know Aunt Gertrude much better through her own records and from speaking with those who knew her best. It gives me a great appreciation for her and her friends, colleagues and family.

Please visit my blog for a longer version of this post, with additional topics.

Acknowledgements

Thanks for support and contributions on the Cox history project: Nancy Hall, University of Delaware; Patti Hunter, Westmont College; George Eckert, Indiana University; Josh Horstman, Nested Loop Consulting; Catherine Moyers, Chicago, Illinois; Edith Sylla (check spelling), North Carolina State University; Morice Toler, North Carolina State University; Bradley Wells, Mark Espeland, and Robert Byington, Wake Forest University; Robert Monroe, Sarah and Phillip Carroll, Julie McVay, Jack and Vi Rigney, Al and Betty Finkner, and Larry Nelson, Raleigh North Carolina;  Klaus Hinkleman, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Jan Hoen, Margaret Harrach, Myra and Klaas Hoen; last but not least, Patrick and Liam Hoen. Thank you, Annie Zangi and Arati Mejdal, for this opportunity to post a few words on Gertrude.

References

1.  Anderson RL, Monroe R, Nelson L. Gertrude Cox – a modern pioneer in statistics. Biometrics. 35(Mar 1979): 3-7.
2.  Cochran W.G. "Some Reflections." Biometrics. 35(Mar 1979): 1-2.
Cochran W.G." Gertrude Mary Cox, 1900-1978." International Statistical Review. 47(1) (Apr  1979), pp.97-98.
3.  Hunter P. "Gertrude Cox in Egypt: A Case Study in Science Patronage and International Statistics Education During the Cold War." Science in Context. March 2009. 22(1): 47-83.
4.  Monroe R.J., McVay F.E." Gertrude Mary Cox, 1900-1978." The American Statistician. Feb 1980. 34(1): 48.
5.  North Carolina State University Library Archives, Gertrude Cox Collection, including:
a.  Cox G.M. The Institute of Statistics, Raleigh, NC, October 1940-December 1960, Chronology and Reminiscence. June 19, 1976, Rollins College, Florida.
b.  Cox G.M. Diaries.
c.  Cox G.M. Letters.
d.  Cox G.M. Log of Foreign Countries Visited.
6.  Interviews with Sarah Carroll, Larry Nelson, Robert Monroe, and Jack Rigney conducted by Helena Hoen, 1995-1996.
7.  Cox G.M. Correspondence with family members.
8.  Brook E.B. Tales of Statisticians, George W. Snedecor. 2001.

Other Links on Gertrude Cox

1. Longer version of this post.
2. NC State University Archives.
3. "Profession Opens World to Woman Statistician," Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 24, 1963.
4. A Chronicle of Mathematical People by Robert A. Nowlan.

tags: Academic, Celebrating Statisticians, Gertrude Cox, Statistics, Year of Statistics

2 Comments

  1. Posted September 25, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Helena--it is great to see this post. I'm working on another paper that features GC--part of a broader project on the contributions of the Ford Foundation to science in developing countries.

    • Helena Hoen Helena Hoen
      Posted September 30, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      Hi Patti! It was great to hear from you and what you’re working on. Good luck with your research on the Ford Foundation. Glad to see more on Gertrude getting out.

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