David Blackwell is a trailblazing explorer who contributed fundamentally to several fields of math and statistics. Blackwell’s career was distinguished by his groundbreaking work, but he  also had to overcome many racial hurdles in his career. Despite all the obstacles, he managed to become the first African American to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.1,2

Blackwell had to overcome impossibly difficult obstacles to significantly advance the sciences of math and statistics right from the beginning.2 He was born on April 24, 1919, in Centralia, Illinois. His mathematical prowess was acknowledged at a young age, and he educated himself to read by examining the seed packets in his grandfather’s general store.5 From that point forward, he constantly sought knowledge and new perspectives on the world.2,3

Blackwell, who is African American, had the good fortune to attend an integrated school rather than one of Centralia’s two racially segregated elementary schools. Early recognition of his aptitude for math allowed him to enroll at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign at the age of 16. By the time he was 22, he had given up on his goal of becoming an elementary school teacher and had earned a Ph.D. in the subject.3,4 

Dr. Blackwell served as a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton from 1941 to 1942. Members of the IAS were automatically given the title of visiting fellow at that time; therefore, Blackwell was mentioned as one in the institute’s bulletin. Many scientists and experts were drawn to him, including John von Neumann, who was intrigued by Blackwell’s dissertation on the “Properties of Markov chains.” He eventually quit IAS, nevertheless, after being denied research and lecture opportunities at nearby Princeton University on the grounds of race.5,6

Despite the effects that racial discrimination had on his life and career, his achievements eventually received the recognition they deserved.2 Because of his color, he was initially turned down for a job at the University of California, Berkeley.3 Therefore, he spent the first 12 years of his career as a professor at historically Black colleges and universities, with Howard University serving as his primary institution. Blackwell accepted an invitation to join the University of California, Berkeley’s Statistics Department, which was developing into one of the top statistics colleges in the world, in 1955.3 

For his contributions to the advancement of Markovian decision processes and the establishment of the mathematical foundation for the theory of dynamic programming, Blackwell was awarded the John von Neumann Theory Prize in 1979. Since practically all advancements in the subject derive from his fundamental work, his works on dynamic programming from the 1960s have been referenced countless times. He contributed to the development of sequential analysis in game theory by working with Kenneth J. Arrow. The Rao-Blackwell theorem on statistical estimation, which he also discovered, provided a more practical way to enhance estimates. Blackwell was a pioneer of Bayesian statistical decision-making, which takes into account the likelihood that a given event will occur based on the facts at hand. Blackwell continued to significantly impact a wide range of ideas and fields, including game theory,  information theory, probability theory, Bayesian statistics, and others.5,6

Blackwell was also a prolific and innovative writer who authored over 80 publications, two groundbreaking textbooks on statistics and game theory, and held 12 honorary degrees from Harvard, Howard, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and other colleges. Over the course of his career, he oversaw more than 60 Ph.D. students while serving as an officer for several professional organizations. Blackwell retired in 1988 and passed away in 2010 at the age of 91.1,3 

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  1. David Blackwell | Biography, Books, & Facts | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/David-Blackwell 
  2. David H. Blackwell: A Profile of Inspiration and Perseverance | Statistics at Illinois. (n.d.). Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://stat.illinois.edu/news/2020-07-17/david-h-blackwell-profile-inspiration-and-perseverance 
  3. David Blackwell (1919 – 2010) – Biography – MacTutor History of Mathematics. (n.d.). Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Blackwell/ 
  4. David Blackwell page1 – Mathematicians of the African Diaspora. (n.d.). Retrieved December 27, 2022, from http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/PEEPS/blackwell_david.html 
  5. David Blackwell – National Science and Technology Medals Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://nationalmedals.org/laureate/david-blackwell/ 
  6. Blackwell, David – INFORMS. (n.d.). Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://www.informs.org/Explore/History-of-O.R.-Excellence/Biographical-Profiles/Blackwell-David 

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