David Harold Blackwell

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February 5, 2019

The National Society of Black Physicists honors Dr. David Harold Blackwell. Dr. Blackwell was an American statistician and mathematician who made significant contributions to game theory, probability theory, information theory, and Bayesian statistics. 

david blackwellDavid 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 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. 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. He would eventually depart 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. However, while he was 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."

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.


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