David Blackwell

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David Harold Blackwell
David Blackwell 1999.jpeg
Blackwell in 1999
Born (1919-04-24)April 24, 1919
Centralia, Illinois, U.S.
Died July 8, 2010(2010-07-08) (aged 91)[1]
Berkeley, California, U.S.
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Known for Rao–Blackwell theorem
Blackwell channel
Blackwell's approachability theory
Arbitrarily varying channel
Games of imperfect information
Dirichlet distribution
Bayesian statistics
Mathematical economics
Recursive economics
Sequential analysis
Scientific career
Fields Statistician
Institutions University of California, Berkeley
Thesis Some properties of Markoff chains
Doctoral advisor Joseph Leo Doob
Notable students Roger J-B Wets
Richard S. Bucy

David Harold Blackwell (April 24, 1919 – July 8, 2010) was an American statistician and mathematician who made significant contributions to game theory, probability theory, information theory, and Bayesian statistics. He is one of the eponyms of the Rao–Blackwell theorem.[2] He was the first African American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, the first black tenured faculty member at UC Berkeley,[1][3] and the seventh African American to receive a Ph.D. in Mathematics.

Blackwell was also a pioneer in textbook writing. He wrote one of the first Bayesian textbooks, his 1969 Basic Statistics. By the time he retired, he had published over 90 books and papers on dynamic programming, game theory, and mathematical statistics.[4]


David Harold Blackwell was born on April 24, 1919, in Centralia, Illinois to Mabel Johnson Blackwell, a full-time homemaker, and Grover Blackwell, an Illinois Central Railroad worker.[5] He was the eldest of four children.[4] Growing up in an integrated community, Blackwell attended “mixed” schools, where he distinguished himself in mathematics. During elementary school, his teachers promoted him beyond his grade level on two occasions. It was in a high school geometry course, however, that his passion for math began.[6] An exceptional student, Blackwell graduated high school in 1935 at the age of sixteen.[5]

Graduate and post-graduate career[edit]

Blackwell entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with the intent to study elementary school mathematics and become a teacher. In 1938 he earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in 1939, and was awarded a PhD in mathematics in 1941 at the age of 22, all by the University of Illinois.[5][7][8] Blackwell was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

He did a year of post-doctoral studies as a fellow at Institute for Advanced Study in 1941 after receiving a Rosenwald Fellowship.[9] There he met John von Neumann, who asked Blackwell to discuss his Ph.D. thesis with him.[10] Blackwell, who believed that von Neumann was just being polite and not genuinely interested in his work, did not approach him until von Neumann himself asked him again a few months later. According to Blackwell, "He (von Neumann) listened to me talk about this rather obscure subject and in ten minutes he knew more about it than I did."[11]

He departed when he was prevented from attending lectures or undertaking research at nearby Princeton University (which the IAS has historically collaborated with in research and scholarship activities)[12] because of his race.[8]

Professional career[edit]

From left to right: Abdulalim Shabazz, David Blackwell, and J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. at the Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS) in June 1995.

Seeking a permanent position, he wrote letters of application to 105 historically black colleges and universities; he felt at the time that a black teacher would be limited to teaching only at black colleges.[13] He also sought a position at the University of California, Berkeley, and was interviewed by statistician Jerzy Neyman. While Neyman supported his appointment, race-based objections prevented his appointment at that time.

He was offered a post at Southern University at Baton Rouge, which he held in 1942–43, followed by a year as an Instructor at Clark College in Atlanta. He then moved to Howard University in 1944 and within three years was appointed full professor and head of the Mathematics Department.[8] He remained at Howard until 1954.

From 1948 to 1950, Blackwell spent his summers at RAND Corporation with Meyer A. Girshick and other mathematicians exploring the theory of duels. In 1954 Girshick and Blackwell published Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions.

Blackwell wrote one of the first Bayesian textbooks, his 1969 Basic Statistics. Blackwell's Basic Statistics inspired the 1995 textbook Statistics: A Bayesian Approach by the biostatician Donald Berry.

UC Berkeley[edit]

He took a position at the University of California, Berkeley as a visiting professor in 1954, and was hired by as a full professor in the newly created Statistics Department in 1955, becoming the Statistics department chair in 1956.[8][14] He spent the rest of his career at UC Berkeley, retiring in 1988.[8]

In 2018, UC Berkeley named an undergraduate residence hall in his honor. The new Blackwell Hall is set to open in Fall 2018.[15]

Personal life and death[edit]

Blackwell married Ann Madison on December 27, 1944.[4] They had eight children together.

David Blackwell died of complications from a stroke on July 8, 2010 at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, California.[16]


Don't worry about the overall importance of the problem; work on it if it looks interesting. I think there's a sufficient correlation between interest and importance.

— David Blackwell[5]

Honors and awards[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sorkin, Michael (July 14, 2010). "David Blackwell fought racism; become world-famous statistician". Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. 
  2. ^ Roussas, G.G. et al. (2011) A Tribute to David Blackwell, NAMS 58(7), 912–928.
  3. ^ Cattau, Daniel (July 2009). "David Blackwell 'Superstar'". Illinois Alumni. University of Illinois Alumni Association. pp. 32–34. 
  4. ^ a b c Marlow Anderson (31 March 2009). Who Gave You the Epsilon?: And Other Tales of Mathematical History. MAA. pp. 98–. ISBN 978-0-88385-569-0. 
  5. ^ a b c d C., Bruno, Leonard (2003) [1999]. Math and mathematicians : the history of math discoveries around the world. Baker, Lawrence W. Detroit, Mich.: U X L. ISBN 0787638137. OCLC 41497065. 
  6. ^ "Blackwell, David Harold (1919-2010) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". www.blackpast.org. Retrieved 2017-09-26. 
  7. ^ James H. Kessler, J. S. Kidd, Renee A. Kidd. Katherine A. Morin (1996), Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century, Greenwood, ISBN 0-89774-955-3 
  8. ^ a b c d e Grime, David (July 17, 2007). "David Blackwell, Scholar of Probability, Dies at 91". New York Times. Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  9. ^ Grimes, William. "David Blackwell, Scholar of Probability, Dies at 91". New York Times. Retrieved 23 May 2018. 
  10. ^ Gary Musser, Lynn Trimpe; Gary Musser; Lynn Trimpe (2007). Harold R. Parks, ed. A Mathematical View of Our World. Cengage Learning. p. 32. ISBN 9780495010616. 
  11. ^ Steven Krantz (2005). Mathematical Apocrypha Redux: More Stories and Anecdotes of Mathematicians and the Mathematical. Cambridge University Press. p. 225. ISBN 9780883855546. 
  12. ^ "Mission and History". Institute for Advances Studies. 
  13. ^ Donald J. Albers (2008), "David Blackwell", in Donald J. Albers, Gerald L. Alexanderson, Mathematical People: Profiles and Interviews (2 ed.), A K Peters, ISBN 1-56881-340-6 
  14. ^ Morris H. DeGroot (1986), "A conversation with David Blackwell", Statistical Science, 1 (1): 40–53, doi:10.1214/ss/1177013814 
  15. ^ Kane, Will. "New dorm to honor Berkeley's first tenured black professor". UC Berkeley. Retrieved 21 May 2018. 
  16. ^ Brown, Emma (2010-07-16). "David H. Blackwell dies at 91; pioneering statistician at Howard and Berkeley". ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2017-09-26. 
  17. ^ University of California, Berkeley (2015), "List of recipients". Retrieved March 4, 2015.
  18. ^ "Laureates - David Blackwell". National Science & Technology Medals Foundation. Retrieved 21 May 2018. 

External links[edit]