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Blackwell, David Harold (1919-2010)

David Harold Blackwell, mathematician and statistician, was the first African American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1965) and is especially known for his contributions to the theory of duels. Blackwell was born on April 24, 1919, to a working-class family in Centralia, Illinois. Growing up in an integrated community, Blackwell attended “mixed” schools, where he distinguished himself in mathematics. During elementary school, his teachers promoted him beyond his grade level on two occasions. He discovered his passion for math in a high school geometry course.

At the age of sixteen, Blackwell began his college career at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Although he planned on becoming an educator, Blackwell chose math classes instead. Having won a four-year scholarship from the state of Illinois, Blackwell completed his undergraduate degree in 1938 and earned his master’s degree the following year.

Encouraged to continue his studies, Blackwell applied for a fellowship and a teaching assistantship. He was awarded the fellowship which allowed him to complete the Ph.D. program in 1941. After Blackwell completed his dissertation on Markov chains his adviser, Joseph Doob, helped him secure the Rosenwald Fellowship at Princeton University in New Jersey. While Rosenwald Fellows typically received honorary faculty appointments at Princeton, the school objected to Blackwell’s appointment on the grounds of race and refused to back down until the institute director intervened.

From 1942 to 1944 Blackwell taught at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia; and temporarily at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1944, he married Ann Madison and took a permanent faculty position at Howard, later becoming a department head.

From 1948 to 1950, Blackwell spent his summers at RAND Corporation with Meyer A. Girshick and other mathematicians exploring the theory of duels, which involves questions about the shooter’s timing in a man to man altercation.