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Celebratio Mathematica

David H. Blackwell

Statistics  ·  UC Berkeley

A Tribute to David Blackwell

by Leo A. Goodman

This state­ment, due to space con­straints, will de­scribe only two ex­per­i­ences that I had with Dav­id Black­well. The first ex­per­i­ence took place a very long time ago, and the second took place more re­cently.

After Dav­id re­ceived his Ph.D., he was giv­en a one-year ap­point­ment as a postdoc­tor­al fel­low at the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study at Prin­ceton. When his ten­ure at the In­sti­tute was draw­ing to a close, he ap­plied for teach­ing po­s­i­tions at 105 his­tor­ic­ally black col­leges and uni­versit­ies. He didn’t ap­ply to in­sti­tu­tions that were not black in­sti­tu­tions be­cause it was as­sumed at that time that such in­sti­tu­tions would not ac­cept him be­cause of his race. His first teach­ing job was at South­ern Uni­versity in Bat­on Rouge, Louisi­ana, and his second was at Clark Col­lege in At­lanta, Geor­gia. In 1944 he joined the math­em­at­ics de­part­ment at Howard Uni­versity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and he was pro­moted to full pro­fess­or and head of the de­part­ment in 1947. He stayed there un­til 1954. I was a fac­ulty mem­ber in the stat­ist­ics de­part­ment at the Uni­versity of Chica­go be­gin­ning in 1950, and in 1951 or 1952 we in­vited Dav­id to be­come a pro­fess­or in our de­part­ment. We made him a good of­fer. I be­lieve we were the first uni­versity that was not a black uni­versity to of­fer him a job. This was, as I have just noted, in 1951 or 1952.

He turned us down. Here is why. This is what he told me: He was born and grew up in a small town, Centralia, in south­ern Illinois right on the bor­der­line of se­greg­a­tion. If you went a bit south of Centralia to the south­ern tip of Illinois, the schools were com­pletely se­greg­ated in those days. Centralia had one school only for blacks, one school only for whites, and a few “mixed” schools. He at­ten­ded one of the “mixed” schools. His fam­ily would some­times travel north in Illinois from Centralia to vis­it re­l­at­ives liv­ing in Chica­go; and he could see, when he vis­ited his re­l­at­ives liv­ing there, what life was really like for black people liv­ing in Chica­go. He told me that he would def­in­itely prefer to live with his wife and chil­dren in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where Howard Uni­versity is loc­ated, than to live with them in Chica­go.

Dav­id didn’t ac­cept our Uni­versity of Chica­go of­fer; but in 1954, he ac­cep­ted an ap­point­ment at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia at Berke­ley as a vis­it­ing pro­fess­or for the 1954–1955 aca­dem­ic year. And start­ing with the 1955–1956 aca­dem­ic year, he was a pro­fess­or in the stat­ist­ics de­part­ment at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia at Berke­ley.

The second ex­per­i­ence that I had with Dav­id, which I will de­scribe next, dates from the late 1990s and early 2000s. I moved from be­ing a fac­ulty mem­ber at the Uni­versity of Chica­go to be­ing a fac­ulty mem­ber at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia at Berke­ley in 1987, so Dav­id and I were col­leagues from then on. In 1998 a best-selling book called A Beau­ti­ful Mind was pub­lished, and it in­spired the mak­ing of a movie with the same name in 2001 that won four Academy Awards. The book was a bio­graphy of John Nash, the win­ner of a No­bel Me­mori­al Prize in Eco­nom­ic Sci­ences. The prize was for the re­search that Nash had done on game the­ory when he was a gradu­ate stu­dent in the math­em­at­ics de­part­ment at Prin­ceton Uni­versity. Be­cause of the book, the movie, and the No­bel Me­mori­al Prize, in­terest in Nash was high for quite a few years — even, it seems, for ex­ample, among San Fran­cisco’s so­cial elite, mem­bers of the Bo­hemi­an Club and Bo­hemi­an Grove. Al­bert (Al) Bowker, a de­voted mem­ber of the Bo­hemi­an Club and Bo­hemi­an Grove — and also a well-known stat­ist­i­cian and former chan­cel­lor at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia at Berke­ley and a friend of Dav­id’s and a friend of mine — in­vited Dav­id and me to speak about Nash at the Bo­hemi­an Club. Al in­vited Dav­id be­cause Dav­id was an ex­pert in game the­ory, and he in­vited me be­cause John Nash and I had been gradu­ate stu­dents at the same time in the math­em­at­ics de­part­ment at Prin­ceton. John and I were friends then, and we con­tin­ued to be friends after leav­ing Prin­ceton. On the even­ing when Dav­id and I spoke at the Bo­hemi­an Club, Dav­id spoke beau­ti­fully — as he al­ways did. It was strik­ing to see how well he was able to speak on game the­ory to this audi­ence — mem­bers of the Bo­hemi­an Club — who were largely un­fa­mil­i­ar with this rather ar­cane sub­ject. I think that the audi­ence did gain some un­der­stand­ing of what game the­ory was about and why Nash’s re­search was im­port­ant. Dav­id and I had a good time, and our talks were well re­ceived. Dav­id was, simply, a great lec­turer and teach­er, as well as a gra­cious and in­ter­est­ing col­league and a ster­ling hu­man be­ing. We all miss him very much.