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David Harold Blackwell

Statistician David Harold Blackwell, Ph.D. was the first tenured black professor at the University of California-Berkeley and the first black person admitted to the National Academy of Sciences.

UC Berkeley

David Harold Blackwell was one of the world's most notable statisticians, but as a child he didn't particularly like math. That was until he met the right teacher who opened a numerical world to him.

Blackwell, born in 1919, grew up in southern Illinois and by 16 was enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At 22, he graduated from his home state university with a doctoral degree in mathematics and then studied at Princeton. Although Blackwell aspired to a teaching position, racial bias closed doors; he was denied posts at Princeton and at the University of California at Berkeley. However, he was offered a position at Howard University. (Berkeley later offered Blackwell a teaching job, and he became the university's first black tenured professor in 1954).

While at Howard, Blackwell studied game theory and how it applied to decision-making in the government and private sectors during summers at RAND Corp. He became the United States' leading expert on the subject, authoring a widely respected textbook on game theory, as well as research that resulted in several theorems named for him. One such theory, which explains how to turn rough guesses into on-target estimates, is known as the Rao-Blackwell theorem and remains an integral part of modern economics. In 1965, he became the first African-American to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. He died in 2010 [sources: Sanders, Sorkin].

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