David Blackwell currently lives in Berkeley, California, where he is still active as a scholar, even though he retired a few years ago from the University of California at Berkeley as a distinguished professor of Mathematics and Statistics. He joined the faculty at Berkeley in 1954 after having spent ten years at Howard University, in Washington, DC, one year at Stanford, one year at Clark College, now Clark-Atlanta University, one year at Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and one year at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey.
Born in April 1919 in Centralia, Illinois, Blackwell spent ten years there attending public schools. At the age of sixteen he entered the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana in 1935 where he received his AB degree in 1938, his AM in 1939 and his Ph.D. in 1941; all in mathematics. At the age of 22 he had earned a Ph.D. in mathematics and had been awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship to attend the Institute for Advanced Study. This was the beginning of his more than fifty professional years as a world-class mathematician.
While at Howard University, Blackwell distinguished himself as an excellent teacher, an able leader (department chair, 1947-1954) and a very productive scholar, publishing more than twenty papers during his tenure there. When he joined the faculty at Berkeley, these characteristics became even more manifest. At Berkeley, and worldwide, he was recognized as a distinguished scholar and a gifted teacher. He chaired the Department of Statistics (1957-1961) and he published an additional 50 plus papers (a total of 80 papers prior to retirement).
His professional activities as a scholar brought him widespread recognition and acclaim. He has received honorary Doctorate of Science degrees from twelve institutions: Harvard, Yale, University of Illinois, Howard University, Carnegie-Mellon, University of Southern California, Michigan State, Syracuse, Southern Illinois, University of Warwick, National University of Lesotho, and Amherst College. He has been selected president for the following: Institute of Mathematics Statistics, International Association for Statistics in Physical Sciences, and the Bernoulli Society. He has served as Vice President of the International Statistical Institute, the American Statistical Association, and the American Mathematical Society. Two of the highest honors bestowed upon him have been his election to the National Academy of Science (first and only African-American Mathematician elected) and his election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Additionally he holds memberships in numerous professional organizations, including being a life member of NAM.
He has been highly sought as a visiting scholar or guest lecturer by many national and international universities. Students and scholars alike enjoy being in his audiences. Although I had the privilege of having lunch with him several years earlier in Berkeley, I first had the privilege of being in his audience when he gave the NAM Claytor Lecture in January 1985 at the Join Winter Meeting in Anaheim, CA. It was a delightful scholarly experience.
Ironically, when David Blackwell first enrolled at the University of Illinois, he went there with the expectation to earn a bachelor's degree so that he could get a job as an elementary teacher. An excellent teacher he became, but his audiences were never young students. Instead they have been among the best mathematical students and scholars of his era.
In an interview Blackwell was asked the question: "Of the areas in which you have worked, which do you think are the most significant?" He replied, "I've worked in so many areas; I'm sort of a dilettante. Basically, I'm not interested in doing research and I never have been ... I'm interested in understanding, which is quite a different thing." And the annals of history record that he has understood much.
[Johnny L. Houston, Executive Secretary of NAM]
This biography first appeared in the NAM newsletter, Summer Issue, 1994. It has been reprinted with permission from NAM.