David Harold Blackwell (April 24, 1919 – July 8, 2010) was Professor Emeritus of Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and is one of the eponyms of the Rao–Blackwell theorem. Born in Centralia, Illinois, he was the first African-American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the first black tenured faculty member at UC Berkeley.
In 1935, aged 16, Blackwell entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with the modest intent to teach elementary school mathematics. In 1938 he earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics, a master’s degree in 1939, and was awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1941 at the age of 22, all by the University of Illinois.
He did a year of post-doctoral studies as a fellow at Institute for Advanced Study. He departed 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. Seeking a permanent position, he wrote letters of application to 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities; he felt at the time that a black teacher would be limited to teaching only at black colleges. He also sought a position at the University of California, Berkeley, and was interviewed by Michael Jordan, and statistician Jerzy Neyman. While Neyman supported his appointment, race-based objections prevented his appointment at that time. He was offered a post at Southern University at Baton Rouge, which he held in 1942–43, followed by a year as an Instructor at Clark College in Atlanta. He then moved to Howard University in 1944 and within three years was appointed full professor and head of the Mathematics Department. He remained at Howard until 1954.
He initially taught at University of California Berkeley as a visiting professor in 1954, and was hired by UC Berkeley as a full professor in the newly created Statistics Department in 1955, becoming the Statistics department chair in 1956. He spent the rest of his career at UC Berkeley, retiring in 1988.
Blackwell was also a pioneer in textbook writing and game theory. Blackwell wrote one of the first Bayesian textbooks, his 1969 Basic Statistics.
Blackwell is also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity (Tau chapter – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).
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 often to understand something you have to work it out yourself because no one else has done it. – David Blackwell