July 19, 2010
David Harold Blackwell, who was the first African American elected to the National Academy of Sciences—and the first and only African American mathematician within the Academy—died in early July, 2010. He was 91.
Emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, Blackwell was a pioneer in statistical decision theory, and an expert in Baysian statistics, probability, dynamic programming, and information theory. He wrote one of the first Bayesian textbooks, Basic Statistics (1969). The Rao–Blackwell theorem also bears his mathematical stamp.
Blackwell was born in Centralia, Illinois. In 1935, at age 16, he was admitted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where his interest in mathematics flourished. At age 22, having earned a Ph.D., he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Blackwell began his teaching career at Southern University, in Baton Rouge, then spent a year as an instructor at what was then Clark College, in Atlanta. In 1944, he became an associate professor at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and chair of the mathematics department three years later. He distinguished himself as an excellent teacher, an able leader, and a productive scholar.
In 1954, Blackwell taught at Berkeley as a visiting professor. A year later he was hired as a professor of statistics and became the first African-American tenured faculty member at Berkeley.
Over his lengthy career, Blackwell received more than a dozen honorary doctorates, including degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon. He was elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served as vice president of the International Statistical Institute, the American Statistical Association, and the American Mathematical Society.
Blackwell was recently portrayed in the book Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World by photographer Mariana Cook (Princeton University Press, 2009). He was the subject of a lengthy interview in the book Mathematical People: Profiles and Interviews (Birkhäuser and MAA, 1985).
The National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) David Blackwell Lecture is presented annually at MathFest. Achievements by minority mathematicians and students are recognized at the biannual Blackwell-Tapia Conference, which awards the Blackwell-Tapia Prize. in honor of the legacy of David H. Blackwell and Richard A. Tapia.
Check out these sites for more information on Blackwell:
- National Visionary Leadership Project, African American History, David Harold Blackwell
- Statisticians in History: David Harold Blackwell
- The Mathematics Genealogy Project: David H. Blackwell
- MAA: David Harold Blackwell
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (July 14, 2010)