David Harold Blackwell


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Born: April 24, 1919; place: Centralia, Illinois

AB (1938) University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign; AM (1939) University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign 

Ph.D. (1941) Statistics, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign
thesis: Some Properties of Markoff Chains; Advisor: Joseph L. Doob

: Professor Emeritas of Statistics, University of California at Berkeley

Research Intertests: Mathematics

university URL: http://stat-www.berkeley.edu/users/davidbl/; email: none

David Blackwell is, to mathematicians, the most famous, perhaps greatest, African Amercan Mathematician. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics in 1938, Master of Arts in Mathematics in 1939, and his Ph.D. in 1941 (at the age of 22), all from the University of Illinois. He is the seventh African American to receive a Ph.D. in Mathematics. He is the first and only African American to be any one of: a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a President of the American Statistical Society, and a Vice President of the America Mathematics Society.


David Harold Blackwell grew up in Centralia, Illinois, a town of 12,000 on the "Mason-Dixson Line." He was raised in a family which expected and supported working hard and a little faster than most folk. Blackwell says he was fortunate to attend a mixed school rather than the all black school. While he was growing up, "Southern Illinois was probably fairly racist. But I was not even aware of these problems -- I had no sense of being discriminated against." As a schoolboy, Blackwell did not care for algebra and trigonometry ("I could do it and I could see that it was useful, but it wasn't really exciting.") Geometry turned him on. "The most interesting thing I remember from calculus was Newton's method for solving equations. That was the only thing in calculus I really liked. The rest of it looked like stuff that was useful for engineers in finding moments of inertia and volumes and such." In his junior year he took an elementary analysis course and really fell in love with mathematics. "That's the first time I knew that serious mathematics was for me. It became clear that it was not simply a few things that I liked. The whole subject was just beautiful." Four years later he had a Ph.D.

Dr. Blackwell was appointed a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study from 1941 for a year. At that time, members of the Institute were automatically officially made visting fellows of Princeton University, and thus Blackwell was listed in its bulletin as such. This caused considerable ruckus as there had never been a black student, much less faculty fellow, at the University [most notably it had rejected Paul Robeson soley on race]. The president of Princeton wrote the director of the Institute that the Institute was abusing the University's hospitality by admitting a black.

At the Institute he met the great von Neumann who asked Blackwell about his thesis. Blackwell, "He [von Neumann] listened for ten minutes and he started telling me about my thesis." Colleagues in Princeton wished to extend Blackwell's appointment at the institute. However, the president of Princeton organized a great protestation.*

When it was time to leave the institute, Blackwell knew no white schools would hire him, and he applied to all 105 Black schools in the country. After instructorships at Southern University and Clark College, Dr. Blackwell joined the faculty of Howard University from 1944 as an instructor.. At the time, Howard University "was the ambition of every black scholar." In three years, Blackwell had risen to the rank of Full Professor and Chairman.

Inspite of heavy teaching duties, not to speak of heavy administrative duties and a mathematically unstimulating institution, Blackwell published a substantial amount of research. He spent a couple of summers at the RAND corporation and was a Visiting Professor of Statisitcs at Stanford University in 1950-51. Still Blackwell searched for mathematics around Washington and met M. A. Girschick of the Department of Agriculture and who was to be a collaborator in many works: their 1954 book, Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions, is classic in the area. With the exception of a one year visit to Stanford University, Blackwell stayed at Howard until 1954. When he left, he had been Chair of the Department of Mathematics and had published more than 20 papers. In 1954 he gave an invited address in probability at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Amsterdam (The Netherlands). Right afterwards, he was appointed Professor of Statistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was chairman of the Statistics Department for many years.

He was President of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in 1955. He has also been Vice President of the American Statistical Association, the International Statistical Institute, and the American Mathematical Society. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. In 1965 he became the first African American named to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1979 Blackwell won the von Neumann Theory Prize (the Operations Research Society of America) in 1979. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Aside from the books he has published, his teaching ability is supported as the advisor to more than 50 Ph.D. students including the African American Wesley Thompson and the African Jonathan Chukwuemeka Nkwuo. A list of his students is here.

He also made a film Blackwell made for the American Mathematical Society called Guessing at Random.

Though retired, Dr. Blackwell lives in Berkeley, California, where he remains active in mathematical research.

Don't forget to read the article on the greatest Black Mathematicians. For his research, see the David Blackwell page2.

References: [DeGroot]; [Donaldson]; [Ferguson]; [Kenschaft-pre]; [Lehman]; [MathReviews]; [Newell]; [vonNeuman]; [ZentralblättReviews].

SUMMA David Blackwell page: http://www.maa.org/summa/archive/blackwl.htm


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