Samuel Karlin

July 8, 1924 – December 18, 2007

Brief Biography

Samuel Karlin was a John von Neumann Theory Prize recipient who made significant contributions to the theory of games, inventory theory, decision theory, birth-death and diffusion processes, total positivity and the theory of approximations. Karlin was born in Poland and immigrated to Chicago as an infant. To aid his family financially during the Depression, he worked at a local store and eventually taught Hebrew. Karlin studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology before pursuing a doctorate in mathematics from Princeton University. He earned his PhD at the age of twenty-two under the supervision of Salomon Bochner and joined the faculty at the California Institute of Technology in 1948 prior to becoming a professor of mathematics and statistics at Stanford University in 1956.

As theoretical mathematics was beginning to translate into real-world practice following the Second World War, Karlin played a significant role in this process with contributions to game theory and inventory management. He interest in game theory began at Princeton where he was introduced to the Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern.  In the late 1940s, Karlin began publishing papers on functional analysis and worked with other leaders in the field like Lloyd S. Shapley. At Stanford, he was able to explore these interests as a part-time associate for the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, applying game theory to the analysis of pursuit and evasion games such as warplane dogfights.

Karlin was a prolific author. He published three texts on stochastic processes and modeling with H. M. Taylor. In 1983, Karlin edited an influential book on econometrics, time series, and multivariate statistics. Mathematical Methods and Theory in Games, Programming, and Economics, first published in 1959, has been republished three times and cited on over thirteen hundred occasions.

In addition to his research contributions, Karlin was an impassioned educator. The tireless energy he brought to the classroom was said to have exhausted even the postdoctoral fellows. Karlin supervised forty-three PhD students including Richard Barlow, Charles Stone, and Donald Iglehart. Many of his research students went on to enhance a number of other fields including reliability and queueing theory.

In 1973, Karlin was recognized for his lifetime of achievements by the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to receiving that honor and the John von Neumann Theory Prize, Karlin was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1989 by U.S. President George H. W. Bush for “his broad and remarkable researches in mathematical analysis, probability theory, and mathematical statistics” and was elected an inaugural Fellow of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.

Later in his career, Karlin became involved in bioinformatics and devising a means to rank the statistical significance of DNA matches. In the early 1990s he, with Stephen Altschul, helped lay out the statistical foundation for BLAST, the “Google” of computational biological research. Karlin died of a heart attack at age eighty-three. 

Other Biographies

Wikipedia Entry for Samuel Karlin

University of St. Andrews School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences. Karlin Biography. Accessed April 29, 2015. (link)


Illinois Institute of Technology

Princeton University, PhD 1947 (Mathematics Genealogy


Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations

Key Interests in OR/MS

Application Areas
  • Biology


New York Times (2008) Samuel Karlin, Versatile Mathematician, Dies at 83. February 21. (link

Stanford Report (2008) Sam Karlin, mathematician who improved DNA analysis, dies. January 16. (link

Awards and Honors

National Academy of Sciences Member 1972

Lester R. Ford Award 1973

John von Neumann Theory Prize 1987

National Medal of Science 1989

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences Fellow 2002

Selected Publications

Karlin S. & Shapley L. S. (1949) Geometry of reduced moment spaces. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 35(12): 673-677.

Karlin S. (1959) Mathematical Methods and Theory in Games, Programming, and Economics. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: New York.

Arrow K. J., Karlin S., & Suppes P., eds. (1960) Mathematical Models in the Social Sciences, Proceedings of the First Stanford Symposium. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.

Karlin S. & Studden W. J. (1966) Tchebycheff Systems: With Applications in Analysis and Statistics. Wiley Interscience Publishers: New Yok.

Karlin S. & Taylor H. M. (1975) A First Course in Stochastic Processes. Academic Press: New Yok.

Karlin S. & Taylor H. M. (1981) A Second Course in Stochastic Processes. Academic Press: New York.

Karlin S. & Taylor H. M. (1984) An Introduction to Stochastic Modeling. Academic Press: New York.

Karlin S., ed. (1983) Econometrics, Time Series, and Multivariate Statistics. Academic Press: New York.

Karlin S. & Nevo E. (1986) Evolutionary Processes and Theory. Academic Press: New York.

Altman R., Eisenberg D., & Karlin S. (2005) Bioinformatics: Unsolved Problems and Challenges. National Academic Press: Washington, DC.