David Blackwell dies at 91; mathematician, UC Berkeley’s first tenured black professor

David Blackwell, a preeminent mathematician and the first black scholar in the National Academy of Sciences, died July 8 at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley. He was 91 and had had a series of strokes.

Blackwell was known as a problem-solver who contributed to many areas, including probability and game theory.

“He liked elegance and simplicity,” UC Berkeley statistics professor Peter Bickel said. “That is the ultimate best thing in mathematics — if you have an insight that something seemingly complicated is really simple.”

Blackwell referred to himself as “sort of a dilettante” in an interview for the 1985 book “Mathematical People: Profiles and Interviews.” He said he chose problems because he wanted to understand them, independent of what field they might fall under.

David Harold Blackwell was born in Centralia, Ill., on April 24, 1919. He was the eldest child of a railway worker who had a grade-school education.

Blackwell entered the University of Illinois at 16 and earned a doctorate in 1941 when he was 22. After graduation, he was appointed a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

Blackwell applied for teaching jobs at more than 100 black colleges, reasoning that he wouldn’t be hired at white schools.

He worked for short periods as a statistician in the U.S. Office of Price Administration, at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and at Clark College in Atlanta. He was courted by Berkeley and said in an oral history interview that he was nearly hired in 1942. But his appointment was blocked because of his race.

In 1944, he joined the Howard University faculty. By 1947, he was head of the mathematics department, a position he held until 1954, when he was hired by Berkeley. Blackwell was the first tenured black professor at the campus, where he taught for nearly 35 years until his retirement in 1988.

Blackwell was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, Institute of Mathematical Statistics, American Mathematical Society and American Philosophical Society.

He won the John von Neumann Theory Prize from the Operations Research Society of America and the Institute of Management Sciences in 1979. He also wrote two books, published more than 80 papers and held 12 honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Howard and other universities.

Blackwell is survived by his son Hugo of Berkeley; and daughters Ann Blackwell and Vera Gleason of Oakland and Sarah Hunt of Houston. His wife of 62 years, Ann Madison Blackwell, died in 2006. Four of his children are deceased.