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RTI Stories

Gertrude M. Cox, the First Lady of Statistics at RTI

“Of course, if you would consider a woman for this position…”

In March 1959, three staff members of the Institute of Statistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began work on RTI's first project: an analysis of morbidity data collected from a survey in Nashville, Tennessee (the UNC-CH Institute of Statistics had some contracts in its portfolio that were passed onto RTI). The total value of the project was $4,500. The next month, the statisticians were joined on a part-time basis by Gertrude Cox, Ph.D., a veritable legend in the field.

Lauded as the "First Lady of Statistical Science," Cox was the first woman to become a full professor and department head at NC State College and the first woman anywhere in the country to lead a university department of statistics. Cox was highly sought after, and her well-established reputation and consulting relationships with corporations and government agencies promised a steady flow of contracts. Indeed, all but two of RTI's first 20 research contracts were in the field of statistics--including a survey of Raleigh residents about their attitudes toward public education; a feasibility study for Union Carbide Nuclear; and an appraisal of the Nigerian government's data analysis for an agricultural census.

Cox displayed considerable strength and assurance in a field then dominated by men. At a time when female leaders were sparse, her success was largely due to her confidence and determination. When G. W. Forster of NC State College contacted Professor George Snedecor, head of the statistics department at Iowa State University, seeking viable candidates to lead the college's department of experimental statistics, Snedecor compiled a list of all-male candidates. Before sending the list to Forster, Snedecor showed it to Cox, who immediately remarked, "Why didn't you put my name on the list?" Snedecor added Cox as a footnote to his letter, writing, "Of course, if you would consider a woman for this position, I would recommend Gertrude Cox of my staff."

The American Statistical Association's Committee on Women in Statistics and Caucus for Women in Statistics created the Cox Scholarship in 1989, to encourage greater gender diversity in the field of statistics. In 2003, RTI and the Washington Statistical society established the Cox Award, which recognizes statisticians of both sexes who, like Gertrude Cox, have made significant breakthroughs in the field of statistics. Cox herself retired from RTI in 1965, and passed away in 1980; she is commemorated on campus by the Gertrude M. Cox Statistics Building.