David Harold Blackwell
National Visionary

Born on April 24, 1919 in Centralia, IL


Dr. David Blackwell is a theoretical statistician noted for his teaching and work in game and probability theory. He is first and only African-American member of the National Academy of Sciences. Blackwell’s research in mathematics and statistics have found application in many fields including economics and accounting.

Blackwell grew up in Centralia, Ill. His father worked for the Illinois Central Railroad and his mother stayed at home to take care of him and his three siblings. At school, he was intrigued by geometry and calculus, especially theorems and methods for solving equations. His high school math club advisor would challenge members with problems from School Science and Mathematics journal and submit their solutions. Blackwell was identified three times in the magazine as having solved problems and one of his solutions was published.

At 16, Blackwell enrolled at the University of Illinois and majored in mathematics. He supported himself in college by washing dishes, waiting tables and cleaning equipment in the entomology lab. After three years, he graduated and continued at the university to obtain his master’s and doctorate degrees.

Blackwell was given a one-year appointment as a Rosenwald Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in 1941. It was common for Institute members to be made visiting fellows of Princeton. This caused quite a stir because there were no black students enrolled at the university during that time. Princeton’s president wrote a letter to the Institute protesting Blackwell’s admission, but the Institute upheld the appointment.

When his tenure at the Institute was drawing to a close, Blackwell applied for teaching positions at 105 black colleges. He didn’t apply to white institutions because he assumed they would not accept him because of his race. His first teaching job was at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. The following school year, Blackwell accepted a position at Clark College in Atlanta. In 1944, he joined the mathematics department at Howard University. He was promoted to full professor in 1947 and served as the head of the department until 1954. He married a former student from Atlanta, Ann Madison, in 1944 with whom he had eight children.

Blackwell’s focus shifted to the field of statistics while attending an Abe Girshick lecture on sequential analysis. He contacted Girshick with a counterexample to his theorem and the two became collaborators and friends. They co-authored “Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions” in 1954 and later revised it in 1980.

Also in 1954, Blackwell accepted a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley. By 1956, he was appointed chairman of the statistics department. He continued teaching and publishing a substantial amount of research until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1989. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the R.A. Fisher Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies. He also holds honorary degrees from 12 universities, among them Carnegie-Mellon, Yale, Howard and Harvard.



David Blackwell's Wikipedia Page

Evelyn Granville's Visionary Page (Mathematician, Educator)

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/blackwelldavid