David Blackwell

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David Blackwell
David Blackwell 1999.jpeg
Blackwell in 1999
David Harold Blackwell

(1919-04-24)April 24, 1919
DiedJuly 8, 2010(2010-07-08) (aged 91)[1]
EducationUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (BA, PhD)
Known forRao–Blackwell theorem
Blackwell channel
Arbitrarily varying channel
Games of imperfect information
Dirichlet distribution
Bayesian statistics
Mathematical economics
Recursive economics
Sequential analysis
AwardsMember of the National Academy of Sciences (1965)
John von Neumann Theory Prize (1979)
R. A. Fisher Lectureship (1986)
Scientific career
Game theory
Dynamic programming[2]
InstitutionsUniversity of California, Berkeley
ThesisSome properties of Markoff chains (1941)
Doctoral advisorJoseph Leo Doob[3]
Notable studentsRoger J-B Wets

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.[2] He is one of the eponyms of the Rao–Blackwell theorem.[4] He was the first African American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, the first black tenured faculty member at UC Berkeley,[1][5] 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.[6]

Education and early life[edit]

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.[7] He was the eldest of four children.[6] 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.[8] An exceptional student, Blackwell graduated high school in 1935 at the age of sixteen.[7]

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 Doctor of Philosophy in mathematics in 1941[3] at the age of 22, all by the University of Illinois.[7][9][10] Blackwell was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

Career and research[edit]

Blackwell did a year of postdoctoral research as a fellow at Institute for Advanced Study in 1941 after receiving a Rosenwald Fellowship.[10] There he met John von Neumann, who asked Blackwell to discuss his Ph.D. thesis with him.[11] 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."[12]

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)[13] because of his race.[10]

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 professor would be limited to teaching only at black colleges.[14] He also sought a position at the University of California, Berkeley, and was interviewed by statistician Jerzy Neyman. While Neyman supported his appointment, Griffith C. Evans (the head of the mathematics department) objected, citing the concerns of his wife. It was customary for them to invite all the members of the department over for dinner and "she was not going to have any darkie in her house."[15]

Howard University[edit]

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.[10] 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 Perspective by the biostatistician Donald Berry.

University of California, Berkeley[edit]

He took a position at the University of California, Berkeley as a visiting professor in 1954, and was hired as a full professor in the newly created Statistics Department in 1955, becoming the Statistics department chair in 1956.[10][16] He spent the rest of his career at UC Berkeley, retiring in 1988.[10]

In 2018, UC Berkeley named an undergraduate residence hall in his honor. David Blackwell Hall opened in Fall 2018.[17]

Honors and awards[edit]

Personal life and death[edit]

Blackwell married Annlizabeth Madison (1919-2006), a 1934 graduate of Spelman College, on December 27, 1944.[23][6] They had eight children together.[24]

David Blackwell died of complications from a stroke on July 8, 2010 at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, California.[25]


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[7]


  1. ^ a b Sorkin, Michael (July 14, 2010). "David Blackwell fought racism; become world-famous statistician". Saint Louis Post-Dispatch.
  2. ^ a b David Blackwell publications indexed by Google Scholar Edit this at Wikidata
  3. ^ a b David Blackwell at the Mathematics Genealogy Project Edit this at Wikidata
  4. ^ Roussas, G.G. et al. (2011) A Tribute to David Blackwell, NAMS 58(7), 912–928.
  5. ^ Cattau, Daniel (July 2009). "David Blackwell 'Superstar'". Illinois Alumni. University of Illinois Alumni Association. pp. 32–34.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "Blackwell, David Harold (1919-2010) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". www.blackpast.org. 27 July 2010. Retrieved 2017-09-26.
  9. ^ James H. Kessler, J. S. Kidd, Renee A. Kidd. Katherine A. Morin (1996), Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century, Greenwood, ISBN 0-89774-955-3CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ a b c d e f Grime, David (July 17, 2007). "David Blackwell, Scholar of Probability, Dies at 91". The New York Times – via nytimes.com.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Steven Krantz (2005). Mathematical Apocrypha Redux: More Stories and Anecdotes of Mathematicians and the Mathematical. Cambridge University Press. p. 225. ISBN 9780883855546.
  13. ^ "Mission and History". Institute for Advances Studies.
  14. ^ Donald J. Albers (2008), "David Blackwell", in Donald J. Albers; Gerald L. Alexanderson (eds.), Mathematical People: Profiles and Interviews (2 ed.), A K Peters, ISBN 978-1-56881-340-0
  15. ^ "David Blackwell: Berkley [sic]". Youtube. 2010-03-12. Retrieved 2020-06-10.
  16. ^ Morris H. DeGroot (1986), "A conversation with David Blackwell", Statistical Science, 1 (1): 40–53, doi:10.1214/ss/1177013814
  17. ^ Kane, Will (8 February 2018). "New dorm to honor Berkeley's first tenured black professor". UC Berkeley. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
  18. ^ "David Blackwell". Recognizing Excellence/Award Recipients. INFORMS. Retrieved 12 June 2019.
  19. ^ "R.A. Fisher Award and Lectureship - Past Recipients". Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies. Retrieved 12 June 2019.
  20. ^ University of California, Berkeley (2015), "List of recipients". Retrieved March 4, 2015.
  21. ^ Fellows: Alphabetical List, Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, retrieved 2019-10-09
  22. ^ "Laureates - David Blackwell". National Science & Technology Medals Foundation. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
  23. ^ Ann Elizabeth Madison Blackwell Find a Grave
  24. ^ Spelman Messenger Spelman College
  25. ^ Brown, Emma (2010-07-16). "David H. Blackwell dies at 91; pioneering statistician at Howard and Berkeley". ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2017-09-26.

External links[edit]