Rising above the prejudice that engulfed global academia throughout the 1900s, former UC Berkeley professor David Blackwell has been seen as an everlasting exemplar of courage, perseverance and brilliance.
Blackwell was the seventh Black person in U.S. history to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, and he was instrumental in the development of the Rao-Blackwell theorem, a fundamental statistics theory. Throughout his career, Blackwell made notable contributions to probability theory, set theory and logic, mathematical statistics and game theory.
“David Blackwell is a Berkeley hero,” said campus professor emeritus of statistics David Brillinger in an email.
In 1942, a former campus administrator allegedly prevented Blackwell from joining the mathematics department because of his race. At UC Berkeley, Blackwell later became the chair of the statistics department, the assistant dean of the College of Letters and Science and the first Black tenured faculty member.
Between 1942 and 1954, there was a “big change in society,” Blackwell said in a 2003 interview with the campus Oral History Center. Segregation was still considered to be normal in 1942 but was less accepted in 1954, according to Blackwell.
“Being appointed (as the chair of the statistics department) was monumental,” said campus statistics professor emeritus Peter Bickel in an email. “He was also an extremely kind and warm person, who didn’t let the indignities he suffered at various times diminish his sunny attitude towards the world.”
Blackwell’s awards and appointments are numerous. He was the first Black person initiated into the National Academy of Sciences and was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. Blackwell also served as a member of the American Statistical Association’s Census Advisory Committee.
Since 1994, the National Association of Mathematicians, or NAM, has hosted an annual David Blackwell Lecture, where a talented mathematics researcher gives an hour-long lecture to “promote an understanding of mathematics,” according to the NAM website. The website added that the researcher is to exemplify the “spirit of Blackwell.”
“Being David’s colleagues it has been a privilege,” Brillinger said in Blackwell’s obituary. “His honours and accomplishments listed here are but a few of many.”
UC Berkeley alumnus Richard Lockhart first encountered Blackwell at a Stanford University lecture, where he became enamored with the way Blackwell made difficult mathematics seem “strikingly clear and seemingly easy.” In 1977, Lockhart approached Blackwell to be the former’s Ph.D. adviser.
Blackwell had a “very busy Ph.D. load,” serving more than 60 students in under 30 years, according to Lockhart. He added that, as the author of about 84 research papers and his “famously intellectual” book titled “Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions,” Blackwell was highly respected and admired.
“His papers are strikingly short, and that shortness reflects the clarity but also his attitude toward research,” Lockhart said. “He has this famous quote — ‘I’m not interested in research, I’m interested in understanding’ — which is quite a different thing. His papers capture that.”
In an attempt to promote higher education among underrepresented minorities, Blackwell organized a summer program for graduate students at historically Black colleges and universities to learn from him, according to Bickel.
Former president Barack Obama honored Blackwell’s contributions to mathematics and his impact on drug testing, computer communications and manufacturing with the President’s National Medal of Science in 2014. In 2018, UC Berkeley opened an undergraduate residence hall on Durant Avenue and named it after Blackwell.
“This guy was brilliant,” Lockhart said. “He was just amazingly clever and the more you read about him, the more amazing it is.”