David Blackwell

April 24, 1919 – July 8, 2010

Brief Biography

Born and raised in Illinois, David Blackwell was a pioneering statistician and game theorist. In addition to the monumental work that defined his career, Blackwell also fought and broke numerous racial barriers and was the first African American to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

Blackwell enrolled at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign at age sixteen and received all three of his degrees by age twenty-two. Throughout his entire education and early academic career, Blackwell faced disabling discrimination. He was denied a position when he originally applied to the University of California, Berkeley on account of his race. He therefore spent his first twelve years as an academic at historically black colleges and universities, spending the majority of that period at Howard University. When the Statistics Department was established at the University of California, Berkeley in 1955, Blackwell was invited to join what was becoming one of the world’s strongest faculties in statistics.

Prior to teaching, Blackwell held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton. He caught the attention of many scientific and OR professionals including John von Neumann, who was interested in Blackwell’s dissertation, Properties of Markov Chains. Blackwell left IAS after being excluded from lectures and research opportunities at nearby Princeton University.

In 1979, Blackwell received the John von Neumann Theory Prize for his work in developing the subject of Markovian decision processes and establishing the mathematical footing for the theory of dynamic programming. His papers on dynamic programming from the 1960s have been cited hundreds of times as nearly all developments in the field stem from his fundamental work. He was also recognized for his early collaborations with Kenneth J. Arrow. Together they helped lay the foundations of sequential analysis in game theory. He additionally developed the Rao-Blackwell theorem on statistical estimation which created a more effective method for improving estimates. Blackwell was an early proponent of Bayseian statistical decision making that incorporates the probability that something will happen based on available evidence.

Blackwell was a prolific and pioneering author who published two monumental textbooks on statistics and game theory. His first book, Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions (1954), offered the first significant, rigorous mathematical treatment of statistics, drawing upon The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944) by von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. Blackwell had a very distinct opinion on original research and often claimed to be “interested in understanding, which is a quite different thing” than seeking and obtaining new and distinct ideas. During his career, he served as an officer with multiple professional organizations and supervised over sixty PhD students. Blackwell retired from Cal Berkeley in 1988 and passed away at age ninety-one. 

Other Biographies

Wikipedia Entry for David Blackwell

Agwu N., Smith L., & Barry A. (2003) Dr. David Harold Blackwell, African-American Pioneer. in Mathematics Magazine 76: 3-14. 

American Statistical Association. Statisticians in History: David H. Blackwell. Accessed January 6, 2015. (link)

Brillinger D. R. (2010) Biographical Memoirs, David H. Blackwell. in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 156(2): 218-222. (link)

University of St. Andrews School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences. Blackwell Biography. Accessed January 6, 2015. (link)

Cinlar E. & J. Pitman (eds) David H. Blackwell Celebratio Mathematica.  Accessed November 19, 2015 (link)


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, BS 1938

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, MS 1939

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, PhD 1941 (Mathematics Genealogy


Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations

Key Interests in OR/MS


Oral Histories

National Visionary Leadership Project. David Harold Blackwell: National Visionary Video Playlist. Accessed January 6, 2015. (link)

David Blackwell (1984) Interview by Morris H. DeGroot. Statistical Science, Berkeley, CA. (transcript)

David Blackwell (2002/3) Interview by Nadine Williams. Regional Oral History Office, the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA.  (transcript)


New York Times (2010) David Blackwell, Scholar of Probability, Dies at 91. (July 17), D8. (link)

Roussas G. G., ed. (2010) A Tribute to David Blackwell. in The Notice of the American Mathematical Society, 58(7): 912-928. (link)

Washington Post (2010) David Blackwell dies at 91; pioneering statistician at Howard and Berkeley, (July 16). (link)

Awards and Honors

National Academy of Science 1965

John von Neumann Theory Prize 1979

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences Fellow 2002

National Medal of Science 2014 

Professional Service

American Statistical Association, Vice President 1978

Bernoulli Society for Mathematics Statistics and Probability, President 1975-1977

Institute of Mathematical Statistics, President 1956

Selected Publications

Blackwell D. (1942) Idempotent Markov Chains. Annals of Mathematics, 43 (3): 560-567. 

Blackwell D. (1947). Conditional expectation and unbiased sequential estimation. The Annals of Mathematical Statistics, 18: 105-110.

Arrow K. J., Blackwell D., & Girshick M. A. (1949) Optimal Inventory Policy. Econometrics 17: 214-244.

Arrow K. J., Blackwell D., & Girshick M. A. (1949). "Bayes and minimax solutions of sequential decision problems". Econometrica 17 (3/4): 213–244.

Blackwell D. (1954) Game Theory. McCloskey J. F. & Trefethen F. N., eds. in Operations Research for Management, 238-255. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

Blackwell D. & Girshick A. (1954) Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions. John Wiley & Sons: New York.

Blackwell, D. (1962). Discrete dynamic programming. The Annals of Mathematical Statistics, 33: 719-726.

Blackwell D. (1965) Discounted dynamic programming. The Annals of Mathematical Statistics, 36: 226-235.

Blackwell D. (1969) Basic Statistics. McGraw-Hill: New York.