Black Math Pioneer Honored

David Blackwell (UC Berkeley)
David Blackwell (UC Berkeley)

There was a time when David Blackwell, the first black member of  the National Academy of Sciences, was shunned by his colleagues because of his race, denied the right to attend lectures and do research at Princeton University and blocked from a post at the University of California, Berkeley. The mathematician and statistician eventually became Berkeley's first black professor, and this week, nearly two years after his death at age 91, the institution is joining with Howard University and the American Statistical Association to celebrate his legacy and contributions with a conference in his memory.  


From the New York Times:

After being awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship, established by the clothing magnate Julius Rosenwald to aid black scholars, he attended the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. After completing the one year fellowship, Mr. Blackwell left when, because of his race, he was denied the right to attend lectures or do research at Princeton University. At Berkeley, where the statistician Jerzy Neyman wanted to hire him in the mathematics department, racial objections also blocked his appointment.

Instead, Mr. Blackwell sent out applications to 104 black colleges on the assumption that no other schools would hire him. After working for a year at the Office of Price Administration, he taught briefly at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and Clark College in Atlanta before joining the mathematics department at Howard University in Washington in 1944.

While at Howard, he attended a lecture by Meyer A. Girshick at the local chapter of the American Statistical Association. He became intensely interested in statistics and developed a lifelong friendship with Girshick, with whom he wrote “Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions” (1954) …

His “Basic Statistics” (1969) was one of the first textbooks on Bayesian statistics, which assess the uncertainty of future outcomes by incorporating new evidence as it arises, rather than relying on historical data. He also wrote numerous papers on multistage decision-making.

Housed on Howard's campus, this week's Blackwell Memorial Conference includes a poster contest for mathematicians following in the footsteps of Blackwell, who said in a 1983 interview for Mathematical People, "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."


Read more at the New York Times and Howard University.

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