Blackwell in 1999
David Harold Blackwell
April 24, 1919
Centralia, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||July 8, 2010 (aged 91)|
Berkeley, California, U.S.
|Education||University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (BA, PhD)|
|Known for||Rao-Blackwell theorem|
Arbitrarily varying channel
Games of imperfect information
|Awards||Member of the National Academy of Sciences (1965)|
John von Neumann Theory Prize (1979)
R. A. Fisher Lectureship (1986)
|Institutions||University of California, Berkeley|
|Thesis||Some properties of Markoff chains (1941)|
|Doctoral advisor||Joseph Leo Doob|
|Notable students||Roger 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. He is one of the eponyms of the Rao-Blackwell theorem. He was the first African American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, the first black tenured faculty member at UC Berkeley, 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.
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. He was the eldest of four children. 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. An exceptional student, Blackwell graduated high school in 1935 at the age of sixteen.
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 at the age of 22, all by the University of Illinois. Blackwell was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Blackwell did a year of postdoctoral research as a fellow at Institute for Advanced Study in 1941 after receiving a Rosenwald Fellowship. There he met John von Neumann, who asked Blackwell to discuss his Ph.D. thesis with him. 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."
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) because of his race.
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. 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."
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. 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.
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. He spent the rest of his career at UC Berkeley, retiring in 1988.
In 2018, UC Berkeley named an undergraduate residence hall in his honor. David Blackwell Hall opened in Fall 2018.
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