If ever a definition of gravitas was sought, one need look no further than Professor David Harold Blackwell — the first black admitted to the National Academy of Sciences — who died Thursday, July 8, 2010, at age ninety-one. David had substance; he had weight (intellectual weight); he had depth; he was compassionate to the core; and he was genuine. In the course of a career marked by great accomplishments in a number of areas in statistics, probability, and mathematics, he had earned the reputation for intellectual rigor and integrity, and he commanded deep respect in the global academic community. He was an outstanding person, both intellectually and morally, and it is a pleasure to say a few words about this noble man.
I will not talk about his scientific accomplishments. First, they are too many, and second, they are well known. I will concentrate on David as a man.
On the basis of the personal association that I was fortunate to have had with Professor Blackwell, first as a student, and then as a colleague, I say with a sense of pride that David was a rare individual who possessed warmth, integrity, humility, intellectual passion, a commitment to students, faculty, colleagues, and friends alike. He had the courage to take a stand on important issues — the qualities that a creative, gifted scholar imbued with high moral sense is supposed to possess — and we were fortunate that we had such a person as our colleague. I am doubly fortunate to have had him as my teacher as well.
Good stories always invite us to slip into the shoes of other people — a crucial step in acquiring a moral perspective. Stories about friendships require taking the perspective of friends, taking them seriously for their own sake. In the best friendship, we see in perhaps its purest form a moral paradigm for all human relations. Professor Blackwell was a good friend. He had a unique talent, a rare gift of making everybody and anybody feel as though they were his best and most intimate friends. His steadfast friendship, his counsel, his magnanimity, and his example over many years placed me forever in his debt.
David was a living legend whose work not only influenced probability, statistics, and mathematics but has also had far-reaching implications for many fields, including economics. To quote him, “I’ve worked in so many areas — I’m sort of a dilettante. 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.” He received his Ph.D. in 1941 at the age of twenty-two from the University of Illinois under the direction of Professor, and he directed sixty-five Ph.D.s. It is well known that in 1942 of the University of California at Berkeley asked Doob if he was interested in going west. “No, I cannot come, but I have some good students, and Blackwell is the best,” he replied. “But of course he’s black,” Doob continued, “and in spite of the fact that we are in a war that’s advancing the cause of democracy, it may not have spread throughout our own land.” Neyman then wanted to offer Blackwell a position, but the idea met with protest from the wife of the mathematics department chairman. She was a Texas native who liked to invite the math faculty to dinner occasionally, and she said she “was not going to have that darky in her house”, according to Dr. Blackwell’s recollection in an oral history interview. The job offer never came. Neyman had never forgotten Blackwell and finally hired him in 1954, and Blackwell would stay at Berkeley for the remainder of his career.
As a teacher he kept his expectations high. When the students walked into his class, they felt the spirit of excellence. He saw to it that no student was left behind. He made every effort to see that at the end of the day, the poor student became good and the good student became superior. Students were his audience. He never walked away from them as long as they did not walk away from him. As long as they were buying what he was selling, he kept on selling. He was the shining light.
Professor Blackwell received many honors in his lifetime, which include, among others, elected membership in the National Academy of Sciences (the first and the only black mathematician) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, vice president of the American Statistical Association, vice president of the American Mathematical Society, and twelve honorary degrees of doctorate of science from Harvard, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and other universities.
We live in a difficult world; we live in a complicated world; a demanding, unforgiving world, a world in which honesty and integrity are becoming rare commodities; where malice, jealousy, and self-centeredness motivate people to act in unprofessional, unethical, and undesirable manners. Ironically, and painfully, these things are happening even in the academic world, which is supposed to be the moral voice of humanity, but during these difficult and complicated times, in this demanding and unforgiving world, Professor Blackwell mastered the art of living the difficult life with integrity and style, and he made it look easy and certainly desirable. He showed his strength by siding with the weak and helping the downtrodden, and with his loyal heart and with his purest hands, he executed faithfully the university, public, and professional trusts. Anybody who knew him, or met with him, respected him, revered him for his bright sunny nature and the saintly unselfishness by which or with which he discharged his responsibilities and earned the respect and trust of his friends and colleagues. The mathematical community in general, and those who knew him outside the mathematical community, loved him while he was living; they love him even now when he is gone.