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Pioneering Mathematician David Blackwell, 1919-2010

Jul 19, 2010

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I had never heard of mathematician David Blackwell until this past weekend when I read his Washington Post obituary.

But Blackwell lived a pioneering life. He deserves to be much better known.

Blackwell, an expert on game theory who died at age 91, was the first African-American to get tenure as a faculty member at University of California, Berkeley.

Then there was this spectacular first — Blackwell was the first black American to be elected to the super prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

I don't pretend to understand his contributions very deeply. But his fellow mathematicians clearly were impressed by his work.

An excerpt from the Associated Press:

Berkeley statistics professor Peter Bickel said Blackwell had a talent for making things appear simple.

"He liked elegance and simplicity," Bickel said. "That is the ultimate best thing in mathematics, if you have an insight that something seemingly complicated is really simple."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post had fascinating and maddening details on his early life.

David Harold Blackwell was born April 24, 1919, in Centralia, Ill. His father, who had a fourth-grade education, worked for the railroad, and his grandfather ran a store.

Dr. Blackwell taught himself to read at the store by examining the pictures and letters on seed packages.

At 16, he planned to become an elementary schoolteacher and entered the University of Illinois, where, at the time, there were no black professors. Six years later, he had discovered a passion for mathematics, earned a doctorate in that subject and won a fellowship to Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study.

While at Princeton in the early 1940s, he sent job applications to 104 historically black colleges — working as a professor elsewhere, he believed, wasn't a possibility.

However, he was courted by Berkeley and was nearly offered a job there until the idea met with protest from the wife of the mathematics department chairman. She was a Texas native who liked to invite the math faculty to dinner occasionally, and she said she "was not going to have that darky in her house," according to Dr. Blackwell's recollection in an oral history interview.

He eventually wound up at Berkeley despite that and established himself as a leader in statistics.

Again, one of the most remarkable lives you've probably never heard of.

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