Blackwell was a statistician and mathematician. Boring? Not even! He specialized in game theory, and applied it to the mathematics of bluffing, once even theorizing when someone in a duel should fire his gun. That’s hardly frivolous: the military used it to help soldiers in battle conditions. “Basically, I’m not interested in doing research and I never have been,” Blackwell once said. “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.” Indeed, “He went from one area to another, and he’d write a fundamental paper in each,” said Thomas Ferguson, an emeritus professor of statistics at UCLA. “He would come into a field that had been well studied and find something really new that was remarkable. That was his forte.”
But Blackwell nearly wasn’t allowed to make his contributions, even though he was so intelligent he entered college at 16 and earned his Ph.D by 22: Statistician Jerzy Neyman wanted to hire him to teach at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1940s, but the now famously-liberal university refused to appoint Blackwell because he was black. He ended up teaching at a succession of “historically black” schools, but after writing the seminal text Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions with Meyer A. Girshick in 1954, Berkeley hired him, and Blackwell became the school’s first black tenured professor; he taught there for 35 years. He was also the first black scholar to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Blackwell died July 8, but his death was not made public for more than a week. He was 91.