Unveiling David Blackwell: A Journey of Inspiration and Excellence

Unveiling David Blackwell: A Journey of Inspiration and Excellence

Bio of David Blackwell

David Blackwell was a prominent Mathematician, a Statistician, and a Game theorist. He is a genius from the 20th century who contributed to many foundational theories that today bear his name and other significant ideas in areas of Mathematics, Statistics, and Operations Research. David Blackwell is also a pioneer in textbook writing; Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions(1954) and Basic Statistics(1969) are his two well-known textbooks, apart from many journal articles. He is known for his independent invention of dynamic programming, which is currently used in finance and various areas of science, including genome analysis. His contributions and achievements made him the first African American U.S. National Academy of Sciences member. He won the John von Neumann Theory prize, named after one of his earlier mentors, for his work in Markovian decision processes and his contributions to probability theory, information theory, Bayesian statistics, and game theory.

David Blackwell, 1982

Sounds great so far: a born intellect who became an early leader in the field of statistics. But it’s important to know that his journey to such a pinnacle wasn’t as easy as one would expect. Of course, his brilliance was a bit natural compared to the racial discrimination he faced, the adversities that pushed him back, and the opportunities he lost because he was an African American. He belongs to the period of extreme racism when schools mainly were segregated based on the color of the students; top universities had only white professors, and blacks were denied fellowships to pursue doctorates. It was almost impossible for black people to receive higher educational degrees and enter into research studies because practically all the white mentors were too prude to allow a black person to become one of them. Additionally, he was steering his career against the backdrop of the Great Depression, World War II, The Cold War, The Civil Rights Protests Era, etc. However, overcoming all of these setbacks, he went from humble beginnings to becoming an influential figure in the field of statistics.

David Blackwell is a man with humility and modesty. He was born on April 24, 1919, in Centralia, Illinois. His parents were a homemaker and a central railroad worker. He didn’t plan anything big for his life. He was unaware of the severity of racism prevailing across the United States. For this reason, instead of a blacks-only school, he chose an integrated school(mixed races) to complete his schooling. A friend of David’s father, a member of a school board in Illinois, told his father that if David could complete his high school and college graduation, he would get David a teaching job at the same school. During the Great Depression, getting a job was difficult. So, this proposal greatly relieved David and his parents as it was an achievable future for David. David started high school with the only goal of becoming an elementary teacher. But his brilliance surpassed his goals. He was promoted twice to higher grades during his schooling. He was very much encouraged by his teachers there. It was during his time there that he discovered his passion for Mathematics. In his own words, he said, “I find Mathematics really beautiful and full of ideas.” Of all branches of Mathematics, he enjoyed geometry a lot. He wondered if there was always a winning strategy for the first player in games. So, he applied his mathematical skills to games, such as noughts and crosses, to analyze and determine a winner’s strategy. In his junior year, he took an elementary analysis course in mathematics. Occasionally, his favorite senior high school math teacher would give his students math problems out of a magazine and would post the solutions the students gave to the magazine. More than a couple of times, David’s solutions appeared in the magazine along with his name. David, feeling encouraged by his teacher, decided to pursue a degree in Mathematics.

ALSO READ: How to Choose a Career?

After graduating high school at 16, he joined the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign(UIUC) for a college degree. There, he realized his father had to borrow money if he had to fund his education. So he took up jobs as a dishwasher, waiter, and laboratory cleaner to finance his studies. At the same time, he took courses over the summers and graduated with a B.A. Mathematics in 1938. After graduating, Blackwell continued to study at the same college, UIUC, for his Master’s degree, which he completed in 1939, and then went on to pursue a doctorate(1941) under the supervision of Joseph Doob, one of the founding figures of modern probability theory. When Blackwell was still 22 years old, he received his doctorate for, as suggested by Doob, a thesis on Markov chains at UIUC. Verily, he became the first African-American to receive a doctorate from the University of Illinois and seventh in the United States.

After his PhD at UIUC, he applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study(IAS) at Princeton, New Jersey. Because they couldn’t give him a teaching assistant fellowship to handle teaching a class entirely of white students, he was offered a pure fellowship, the Rosenwald Fellowship, at IAS. It was customary for the members of IAS to receive visiting fellow appointments at the University; thus, Blackwell, too, received. Being the first black student member of the IAS, receiving such privilege didn’t go down well with most of the faculty members at the University, including the President of Princeton, who organized a protest against his admittance. Eventually, with the intervention of Prof Doob, the University withdrew its objection and allowed Blackwell to maintain his fellowship and courtesy title of assistant professor. During this fellowship, he got a chance to get acquainted with different scholars there, some of whom inspired him to follow the noble path of an educator, i.e., encouraging and mentoring students for life. For example, Von Neumann, considered the father of modern game theory, was willing to mentor students even at an older and advanced professional stage. Witnessing Neumann’s dedication, Blackwell saw him as a role model and emulated this behavior throughout his career, which was evident when he worked as a dissertation advisor to over 50 students.

For a period, he worked as an instructor at Southern University(Baton Rouge) and Clark College(Atlanta) while sending around 105 applications, all to black colleges. Until, in 1944, he received an appointment in the mathematics department at Howard University, Washington. At that time, he published some 20 papers that appeared in major mathematics and statistics journals. He then collaborated with Meyer A. Girshick, who greatly influenced Blackwell’s career, to publish a book, Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions. In 1955, he was called and appointed as a professor of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Later, he became chairman of the statistics department(1957-61) and worked as a professor of mathematics(1973). Almost every weekday, he continued to visit the college even after he retired in 1989 until he passed away at the age of 91 years on July 8, 2010, in Berkeley.

Notable works of David Blackwell

  • 1944-54: During his 10-year period at Howard, Blackwell published 20 papers contributing to measure theory, renewal theory, sequential analysis, game theory, and decision theory. Those papers serve as foundational theories in their areas to this day.
  • At Howard University, he published a paper, “Conditional Expectation and Unbiased Sequential Estimation,” which outlined a technique that later became known as the Rao-Blackwell theorem, a fundamental improvement scheme in estimation, with Nobel Laureate Kenneth J. Arrow and M. A. Girschick. It became the foundation for Bayes and minimax sequential analysis (Backward induction). The theorem provides a method for improving statistical estimates by reducing their mean squared error.
  • 1948–50: Working as a consultant at the RAND Corporation, Blackwell applied game theory to military situations by analyzing the optimum timing of theoretical armed duelists. Here, Blackwell and Girshick worked on the duelist’s dilemma –which involves any two-person, zero-sum game, such as a traditional duel with firearms, a playground game of rock-paper-scissors, or even a game of checkers.
  • Studying statistical decision theory, the basis of modern machine learning, introduced by Bohnenblust, Karlin, and Shapley, Blackwell laid the foundational work in dynamic programming, Blackwell policies, and the Blackwell renewal theorem, a fundamental tool in the analysis of queuing systems used in engineering.
  • 1954: Published a monograph, “Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions,” along with Meyer A. Girshick. This book is a classic in the field of statistics, which explores statistical evaluation procedures through decisions and game theory.
  • 1967: Blackwell’s most satisfying work, “Infinite Games and Analytic Sets,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He connected the areas of game theory and topology, which weren’t connected before, and found a game theory proof of the Kuratowski Reduction theorem.
  • 1969: He wrote one of the first Bayesian textbooks, Basic Statistics.

His significant contributions to probability and statistics include algorithms, approximations, Bayesian statistics, predictors, distributions, improved estimates, bounds, limit theorems, proofs, representations, and the usage of Rao-Blackwellization to improve estimates.

Memberships, Achievements and Awards of Blackwell

  • 1954: He was invited to address the International Congress of Mathematicians in Amsterdam.
  • 1955: He was elected President of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics.
  • 1965: First African-American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
  • 1968: Vice President of the American Mathematical Society till 1971.
  • 1968: He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • 1973: President of the International Association for Statistics in the Physical Sciences.
  • 1975: Vice president of the International Statistical Institute till 1978.
  • 1976: Elected as an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.
  • 1978: Vice president of the American Statistical Association.
  • 1979: Won the Jon von Neumann Theory prize from the Operations Research Society of America.
  • 1986: R A Fisher Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies.
  • 1990: He was elected to American Philosophical Society.
  • He was a member of many other professional communities: the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Congress of Mathematicians, the Mathematical Association of America, and the National Research Council.
  • Blackwell had received twelve honorary Doctorate of Science degrees throughout his career: University of Illinois (1966), Michigan State University (1969), Southern Illinois University (1971), Carnegie-Mellon University (1980), National University of Lesotho (1987), Amherst College, Harvard University (1988), Howard University, Yale University, University of Warwick (1990), Syracuse University (1991), and The University of Southern California (1992).
  • His contributions have had such a huge impact that there are awards, concepts, and lectures bearing his name in the mathematical and the statistical field, which includes – Mathematical Association of America-National Association of Mathematicians (MAA-NAM) David Blackwell Lecture, Blackwell-Tapia Award, Blackwell determinacy, Blackwell games, the Rao-Blackwell theorem, Blackwell optimal policies, Blackwell’s renewal theorem, Blackwell spaces, Blackwell’s theorem for G-sub delta winning sets, Blackwell’s approachability theorem, Blackwell’s theory of combination of experiments, and the Blackwell channel.
  • 2014: Then U.S. President Obama announced the National Medal of Science award for Blackwell posthumously.

Throughout his life, Blackwell fought and broke numerous racial barriers and persisted in hardships while preserving his wonderful sunny personality, modesty, and enthusiasm. His infectious smile spread around the college, making him more popular than his intellect. Students remember his presentation as fresh and understandable. He was an outstanding teacher. Besides academics, he was actively into the track and amused by games: chess, marbles, softball, etc. He is like any of us. He never dreamt of achieving something big. He never planned for his achievements. His ability and hard work made him what he is known for now. With all his contributions to science, the world, his leadership roles, awards, and honors, Blackwell felt his greatest achievement was his family, and he was proud of it. He said, “The best thing I ever did in life was to get married to my wife.” Ann Madison and David Blackwell are survived by their eight children, who mattered most to him. Blackwell truly has such a plain, simple, and charming personality.

We’ve created this content for informational purposes only, and it reflects the views of its respective authors/entities (freelancers/interns) and not those of Winspire Magazine. Winspire Magazine does not endorse or vouch for the accuracy of the information provided in this content. It is the reader’s responsibility to verify and ensure the information is correct and up-to-date. Winspire Magazine disclaims any liability or responsibility for any damages or losses from using this content. Therefore, readers should take all necessary steps to verify the accuracy and reliability of any information presented in this content.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Flat no 301, Om Sri Shiva Sai Residency, Medical And Health Colony, Vanasthalipuram, Telangana 500070

Useful Links

Get in touch!

    © 2023 All Rights Reserved by Winspire Magazine

    Flat no 301, Om Sri Shiva Sai Residency, Medical And Health Colony, Vanasthalipuram, Telangana 500070

    © 2023 All Rights Reserved by Winspire Magazine