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Salvador Sanabria 

History of Mathematics 

Professor: Bill Cherowitzo 


Richard Bellman’s Biography 




There are many mathematicians who deserve to be mentioned for their 

great contributions to mathematics and other sciences. But it would be very 

difficult to try to write about all of them. Therefore, I will concentrate on one, 

who has left us with so much in the work of pertinent mathematical theories 

and discoveries. In addition to his contributions, his way of living was very 

interesting or even dramatic. This famous mathematician whose name was 

Richard Bellman had many good things to share with us. Bellman was 

famous for his Dynamics programming theory. I will try to reveal all the 

great and dramatic life events he had to go through in order to become what 

he is now known as: the great inventor of (Dynamic programming).  Bellman 

left us with a very humorous autobiography telling most of his life history in 

a funny and entertaining way. I’ll try to mention every part of his life 

starting from his personal and family life, to his education and carry on with 

his extraordinary contributions to mathematics and other sciences. 







Personal Life 



Richard Bellman was born in 1920, in New York City. His father John 

James Bellman was twenty and his mother, Pearl Saffian Bellman, was 

eighteen at the time he was born.  His father used to run a small grocery 

store on Bergen Street near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The last name of 

Bellman was originated in Sweden. Bellman says: “Bellman in Sweden is like 

Shakespeare in the United States.” This gives us an idea of how popular his 

last name was in Sweden.   


In Bellman’s account we find a nice detail about how his parents met. 

He acounts that his father John James met his soon wife to be, Pearl Saffian, 

at the beach and only knew her first name and that she worked in a big 

department store in Manhattan; he fell in love with her and continually stood 

outside every department store at 5.00 pm every day until he found her.  

Bellman talks a lot about his family including his aunts and uncles who show 

us how close he was to them.  


His father had four sisters: Pearl, Beth, Augusta and the last, Dorothy 

(who Bellman did not know much about). His mother had two siblings, Sylvia 

and Arthur. Bellman was the only son in his family but life was not that easy 

for him and his family as he repeatedly says "we were not suppose to be 

poor". He was referring to the fact that his father kept making wrong choices 

regarding his jobs. He took the Depression so seriously that he would decline 



most jobs offers that he had; and every time he was ready to make 

commitments it would be too late.  


Bellman confesses to us two curses he had to deal with during his 

childhood: bed-wetting and fear of the dark. As a young adult he talks about 

his experience with painful shyness. He had a fear of talking in front of class, 

which made him the last person to present on the last day of the term, while 

in high school. When he went to college, the fear was still there, but he forced 

himself to give as many talks as possible in order to overcome his shyness. 

Bellman’s philosophy was "Once I get started I will do well, and that many 

actors and actresses have the same problem".  


At 12 years of age Bellman, started to get interested in psychology, 

which he thinks may have helped him to deal with some of his problems he 

experienced during his adolescence. He was also fanatic about science fiction 

and literature such as the Harvard classics, among which his favorites were 

Mark Twain and Shakespeare. Mark Twain became the greatest influence for 

Bellman at this age by helping him to widen his imagination and to develop a 

great sense of humor. This was also the time when he started to realize that 

he had read enough fiction and decided to explore something real. At this 

point of his life for the first time, he starts getting into subjects like 

paleontology, archeology, philosophy, history, biography, etc. He starts 

reading science books by Paul de Kruif and the "Crucibles" by Jaffee. At the 

age of sixteen, he discovers a book on vector analysis, which caught his 



interest and starts reading it. The book was not easy to understand at this 

time, since he did not have great ability at geometry, but the fascination he 

felt for the subject gave him a good experience in geometry thus he managed 

to grasp the concepts.  




Bellman completed high school at the Abraham Lincoln High School in 



In his junior year in high school he participated in the inter-scholastic 

algebra league that involved various high schools at the time.  After finishing 

his high school he started his college career at City College of New York 

(CCNY). During this time CCNY was one of the most intellectual institutions 

of higher education in the US. This was right before the middle class 

migration out of the city, and a time for new opportunities in the elite 

institutions for the New Yorkers. CCNY had the choice of the best of New 

Yorkers with a serious intellectual bent. While he was at CCNY, he worked 

on becoming a theoretical physicist. But he decided to major in mathematics 

because for him this took a little work and he could continue learning 

theoretical theory. Finally he concluded that theoretical theory was not field 

he could do, thus he stayed with mathematics, which is how he became a 

mathematician.  Some of his studies during college years included four terms 

of Greek drama and language, it was then when he discovered that he had 



good a memory since he was able to memorize most of the words.  He did 

most of the mathematics by intuition and it was not until he started to write 

a book and teach that he felt like he needed to understand the whole theory.    


Bellman was also a member of the mathematics club also in college, 

where he occasionally heard talks about mathematics. The talk he 

remembered best was the talk by Courant about the problem of inscribing a 

triangle of minimum perimeter in a given triangle. He stayed in college for 

four and a half years and upon graduating from Brooklyn College he did not 

get any mathematics medal since he had already won it as a sophomore.  He 

tells us that he preferred a book rather than a medal, which is how he started 

to collect some good books. One of the first books he bought was “Theory of 

Functions” and then “Fourier Integrals”. These books gave him such a good 

insight into mathematics that he even started to write some of his first 

papers at this time.  



Bellman had many friends while in college but there was only one 

person that got his attention, her name was Betty Jo. Betty and she was his 

first date.  This was the time when he completed his college work and when 

he was trying to make plans for his career. They had decided to get married 

after completing their Ph. D; However, this did not happened since in the 

same year they graduated, in November 22 of 1941, they got married 

“because of the uncertainties of the world situation” he says. He was twenty-

one and she was eighteen “we were both too young,” he said.  During this 



time Bellman needed to find a way of obtaining a source of income when he 

found out about a job position of instructor in electronics, but he did not know 

much about it, so when he asked to be considered for the position, he was 

rejected due to the level of education he had. At this point he felt like his 

mathematics career was over. But in 1941, he moved to Belleville where he 

learned electronics.  At Scott Field, he had the chance to get the rudiments of 

radio and electronics. This was something he started to enjoy since he could 

relate mathematics with the equations used by Van der Pol to describe the 

output of circuits.  After spending six months in Belleville Bellman did not 

want to move back to New York so he and Betty decided to move to Madison, 



While he was in Madison, Bellman was reading the “Duke 

Mathematical Journal or the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society” 

where he found a paper on stability, which he struggled with to establish 

results since he only came up with inequalities, which did not mean much. 

While solving the problems in this journal, every time he got a solution the 

answers, although right, didn’t make sense to him. So he continued to solve 

the problems until he was convinced that the answers made sense to him.  

This was later to become the most significant part of his mathematical 

discoveries. These new ideas and discoveries started to get him to desire to be 

part of Princeton, which in his inner soul, he kept thinking to be 

unattainable. But it was not too long after that when he received a phone call 



from Lefshets, ASTP, Army Specialized Training Program, had just started 

and he was asked if he wanted to be an instructor in this program and come 

to Princeton.  


Bellman entered Princeton in 1943. This was an excitement for him, 

since for years he always wanted to go there. As a graduate student there, 

Bellman became a member of an inner circle of young mathematicians led by 

Professor Solomon Lefschetz. His doctoral research under Lefschetz resulted 

in his first major work "Stability Theory of Differential Equations" (1946), 

subsequently published on his first book in 1953, and regarded as a classic in 

its field. After he taught electronics in Princeton he then worked at a sonar 

lab in San Diego. He spent the last two years of the war in the army, but 

assigned to the Manhattan project at Los Alamos. He was a social creature 

and it was easy for him to meet many of the talented people working on the 

project secretly known as “the gadget”. Typically, the physicists considered a 

mathematician as simply a human calculator, ideally constructed to do 

numerical computations but not much more. Bellman was asked to 

numerically solve some Partial Differential Equations at work. His 

mathematical pride made him refuse this task. To the great surprise of the 

physicists, he actually managed to integrate some of the equations, obtaining 

closed form solutions. Holding true to tradition, they checked his solutions, 

not by verifying the derivation, but by trying some very special cases. It was 

clear he knew what he was doing. With this Bellman’s reputation as a very 



bright young mathematician was established at Los Alamos. During these 

years, he absorbed a great variety of scientific experiences. So much was 

being done due to the war demands. Richard Bellman is a towering figure 

among the contributors to modern control theory and systems analysis. His 

invention of dynamic programming marked the beginning of a new era in the 

analysis and optimization of large-scale systems and opened a way for the 

application of sophisticated computer-oriented techniques in a wide variety of 

problem-areas ranging from the design of guidance for space vehicles to pest 

control and network optimization. After staying on the faculty of the 

Mathematics Department at Princeton from 1946 to 1952, Bellman left to 

join the newly established Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. At 

Rand, he became interested in the theory of multistage decision processes, 

then emerging as an important problem-area in the control of both small- and 

large-scale systems. His invention of dynamic programming in 1953 was a 

major breakthrough in the theory of multistage decision processes - a 

breakthrough, which set the stage for the application of functional equation 

techniques in a wide spectrum of fields extending far beyond the problem 

areas, which provided the initial motivation for his ideas. In addition to his 

fundamental and far-ranging work on dynamic programming, Bellman has 

made a number of important contributions to both pure and applied 

mathematics. Particularly outstanding is his work on invariant imbedding, 

which by replacing two-point boundary problem with initial value problems 



makes the calculation of the solution more direct as well as much more 

efficient. His work on quasi-linearization and its applications to system 

identification has led to many results of a practical nature in the study of 

nonlinear systems. In the recent years, Bellman's research activity has 

focused increasingly on the application of mathematics to medicine and 

biological sciences. He is the founder of the journal "Mathematical 

Biosciences," and the co-author of a forthcoming book "Mathematical Models 

in Medicine." 


Bellman spent the summer of 1948 at RAND, where an amazing array 

of talent was gathered, including David Blackwell, George Dantzig, Ted 

Harris, Sam Karlin, Lloyd Shapley, and many others, who provided the 

foundations of much of ‘decision and game theory’. The original intention was 

to do mathematics with some of the RAND talent on problems of prior 

interest. But Bellman turned out to be fascinated and partially seduced by 

the excitement in OR, and the developing role of mathematics in the social 

and biological sciences. Bellman’s mathematical abilities were widely 

recognized. He was a tenured Associate Professor at Stanford at 28, after 

being an Associate Professor at Princeton, where all indications were that he 

would have had an assured future had he remained there. He began to have 

doubts about the payoff for himself in number theory and returned to the 

atmosphere at RAND often, where he eventually settled and became fully 



involved in multistage decision processes, having been completely seduced, 

and much to our great benefit.  


Here is a non-mathematical item that should be of interest. To work at 

RAND one needed a security clearance, even though much of the work did not 

involve "security." Due to an anonymous tip, Bellman lost his clearance for a 

while: His brother-in-law, whom Bellman had not seen since he (his brother-

in-law) was about 13, was rumored to be a communist! This was an example 

of a serious national problem that was fed, exploited, and made into a 

national paranoia by unscrupulous politicians.  


Bellman was a notable person, totally a man of his time and original in 

his interests, with a fantastic memory. Bellman was one of those who were 

the driving forces behind the great intellectual excitement of the times. The 

word programming was used by the military to mean scheduling. Dantzig's 

linear programming was an abbreviation of “programming with linear 

models”. Bellman has described the origin of the name “dynamic 

programming” as follows. An Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, who was 

believed to be strongly anti-mathematics was to visit RAND. So Bellman was 

concerned that his work on the mathematics of multi-stage decision process 

would be unappreciated. But “programming” was still OK, and the Air Force 

was concerned with rescheduling continuously due to uncertainties. Thus 

“dynamic programming” was chosen, a politically wise descriptor. On the 

other hand, when I asked him the same question, he replied that he was 



trying to upstage Dantzig's linear programming by adding dynamic. Perhaps 

both motivations were true [2]. 


If one looks closely at scientific discoveries, ancient seeds often appear. 

Bellman did not quite invent dynamic programming, but many others 

contributed to its early development. It was used earlier in inventory control. 

Peter Dorato once showed him  a (some what obscure) economics paper from 

the late thirties where something close to the principle of optimality was 

used. The calculus of variations had related ideas (e.g., the work of 

Caratheodory, the Hamilton-Jacobi equation). This led to conflicts with the 

calculus of variations community. But no one grasped its essence, isolated its 

essential features, and showed and promoted its full potential in control and 

operations research as well as in applications to the biological and social 

sciences, as did Bellman.  


Bellman published many influential works. It is sometimes claimed 

that many of his papers are repetitive and did not develop the ideas as far as 

they could have been. Despite this criticism, his works were poured over word 

for word, with every comment and detail mined for ideas, technique, and 

openings into new areas. He did a great amount of work. Evidently it was the 

work of someone with a great background in analysis as well as a simplistic 

mind and sharp eye for applications. In his work there are lots of examples, 

with broad coverage and usually simple simple assumptions. He had a clear 

writing style. His ideas flow very well through the problem formulations and 



analysis unlike many mathematics books that are hard to read and 



Who was influenced by Bellman?  




Harold J. Kushner who worked with Bellman at the 

RAND Corporation Bellman was a great encouragement and influence to him 

in the field of Optimal and Stochastic control theory. He had received many 

awards in both fields. Also Mr. Kushner has written about 7 books and about 

160 papers, he has contributed to the fields of stochastic control theory and 

optimal control theory. He also mentions how Bellman used to tell him to 

write his first book and he finally did. This was the result Bellman’s 



“There is one more indirect connection between us. Bellman was a 

student of Solomon Lefschetz at Princeton, head of the Math. Dept. at the 

time, a very tough minded mathematician and one of the powerhouses of 

American mathematics, and impressed with Bellman's ability. While at Los 

Alamos in WW2 Bellman worked out various results on stability of ODE's. 

Although he initially intended to do a thesis with someone else on a number 

theoretic problem, Lefschetz convinced him that those stability results were 

the quickest way to a thesis, which was in fact true. It took only several 

months and was the basis of his book on stability of ODE's. I was the director 

of the Lefschetz Center for Dynamical Systems at Brown University for many 



years, with Lefschetz our patron saint. Some of you might recall the book (not 

the movie) "A Beautiful Mind" about John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Game 

Theory, which describes Lefschetz's key role in mathematics during Nash's 

time at Princeton,” Harold said. 


Bellman left the Rand Corporation in 1965 to join the faculty of the 

University of Southern California, where he holds a joint appointment as 

Professor of Mathematics, Electrical Engineering and Medicine. He lived in 

Santa Monica, wit his wife, Nina, who he spends much of his time on writing 

and the creation of new ideas. A prolific writer, he has authored over 620 

published research papers, and forty books and seven monographs.  


Bellman did a lot of traveling in America, Europe and Africa where he 

had done many talks and works. However, most of his recognition took place 

in The United States. Bellman's fundamental contributions to science and 

engineering had won him many honors. Famous among these are: First 

Norbert Wiener Prize in Applied Mathematics, awarded in 1970 jointly by the 

American Mathematical Society and the Society for Industrial and Applied 

Mathematics; First Dickson Prize, Carnegie-Mellon University, 1970; and 

John von Neumann Theory Award, awarded in 1976 jointly by the Institute 

of Management Sciences and the Operations Research Society of America.  

He was awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1979, "For contributions to 

decision processes and control system theory, mainly the creation and 

application of dynamic programming." He was elected to Fellowship in the 



American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1975, and to Membership in the 

National Academy of Engineering in 1977. But what is important to mention 

is that Richard Bellman won more than just fame, he won the admiration 

and affection of all who know him for his exceptional courage and greatness 

as a human being. There is still so much more that we owe to him since all 

the contributions he made have changed the way optimization is done by 

mathematicians. I was able to compile this biography by summarizing 

Bellman’s own book “Eye of the Hurricane: Auto Biography”. 


Some of the most important books written by Richard Bellman are: 

(2003) “Stability Theory of differential Equations” 

(2003) “Perturbation Techniques in Mathematics, Engineering and Physics” 

(2003) “Dynamic Programming” 

(1997) “Introduction to Matrix Analysis" 

(1995) “Modern Elementary Differential Equations” 

(1985) “Artificial Intelligence” 

(1984) “Eye of the Hurricane: An Autobiography” 

(1984) “Partial differential Equations” 

(1983) “Quasilinearization and he Identification Problem” 

(1983) “Mathematical Methods in Medicine” 

(1982) “Mathematical Aspects of Scheduling and Applications” 

(1972) “Dynamic Programming and Partial Differential Equations” 

 (1970) “Algorithms, Graphs and computers” 

(1967) “Introduction to the Mathematic Theory of Control Process” 



(1962) “Applied Dynamic Programming” 

(1961) “Adaptive Control Process” 

(1961) “An Introduction to Inequalities” 


 (1986) “Methods of Approximation” 

(1959) “Asymptotic Behavior of Solutions of Differential Equations”. 





1. Bellman, Richard, (2003) “Dynamic Programming”, Dover Publications, Inc. 


2. Bellman, Richard, “Eye of the Hurricane and Autobiography,” World Scientific Publishing, 



3. Bellman, Bellman, (1982) “Mathematical Aspects of Scheduling and Applications” 



4. Bellman, Richard, (1972) “Dynamic Programming and Partial Differential 



Elsevier Science & Technology Books. 


5. Kushner, J. Harold at 


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