J. Ernest Wilkins Jr.

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J. Ernest Wilkins Jr.
J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. 9.jpg
Wilkins in 2007
Born November 27, 1923
Chicago, Illinois
Died May 1, 2011(2011-05-01) (aged 87)[1]
Fountain Hills, Arizona[1]
Nationality United States of America
Alma mater University of Chicago
Known for Work on multivariable calculus, algebra, nuclear physics and engineering
Scientific career
Fields Mathematics and Physics
Institutions Metallurgical Laboratory
Argonne National Laboratory
Influences J. Ernest Wilkins Sr.
Arthur Holly Compton
Enrico Fermi
Influenced Numerous graduate students

Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. (November 27, 1923 – May 12, 2011) was an African American nuclear scientist, mechanical engineer and mathematician. He attended the University of Chicago at the age of 13, becoming its youngest ever student.[2][3][4] His intelligence led to him being referred to as a "negro genius" in the media.

As part of a widely varied and notable career, Wilkins contributed to the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. He also gained fame working in and conducting nuclear physics research in both academia and industry. He wrote numerous scientific papers, served in various important posts, earned several significant awards and helped recruit minority students into the sciences.[2][5][6] His career spanned seven decades and included significant contributions to pure and applied mathematics, civil and nuclear engineering, and optics.[7]

Despite his stature and fame during his various careers he was not unaffected by the prevalent racism that existed for much of his life.[2]


In 1940 (at the age of 17) Wilkins completed his B.Sc. in math. In order to improve his rapport with the nuclear engineers reporting to him, Wilkins later received both bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from New York University in 1982 and 2001,[2][8] thus earning five science degrees during his life.

Early career[edit]

After initially failing to secure a research position at his alma mater in Chicago, Wilkins taught mathematics from 1943 to 1944 at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Manhattan Project[edit]

In 1944 he returned to the University of Chicago where he served first as an associate mathematical physicist and then as a physicist in its Metallurgical Laboratory, as part of the Manhattan Project.[4] Working under the direction of Arthur Holly Compton and Enrico Fermi, Wilkins researched the extraction of fissionable nuclear materials, but was not told of the research group's ultimate goal until after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Wilkins was the codiscoverer or discoverer of a number of phenomena in physics such as the Wilkins Effect, plus the Wigner-Wilkins and Wilkins Spectra.[8]

When Wilkins's team was about to be transferred to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (known at the time as site "X"), due to the Jim Crow laws of the Southern United States, Wilkins would have been prevented from working there. When Edward Teller was informed about this, he wrote a letter on September 18, 1944 to Harold Urey (who was the director of war research at Columbia at the time) of Wilkins's abilities, informing him about the problem of Wilkins's race, and recommending his services for a new position.[9] As Teller explained:

Wilkins then continued to teach mathematics and conduct significant research in neutron absorption with physicist Eugene Wigner, including the development of its mathematical models.[2][4] He would also later help design and develop nuclear reactors for electrical power generation, becoming part owner of one such company.[4]

Later career[edit]

Sketch of Wilkins from a U.S. Department of Energy biography.[4]

In 1970 Wilkins went on to serve Howard University as its distinguished professor of Applied Mathematical Physics and also founded the university's new PhD program in mathematics.[4] During his tenure at Howard he undertook a sabbatical position as a visiting scientist at Argonne National Laboratory from 1976 to 1977.[2]

From 1974 to 1975 Wilkins served as president of the American Nuclear Society[4][11] and in 1976 became the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering.[4][12]

From 1990 Wilkins lived and worked in Atlanta, Georgia as a Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University, and retired again for his last time in 2003.[2][12]

Throughout his years of research Wilkins published more than 100 papers on a variety of subjects, including differential geometry, linear differential equations, integrals, nuclear engineering, gamma radiation shielding and optics, garnering numerous professional and scientific awards along the way.[2][13]


Wilkins had two children with his first wife Gloria Louise Steward (d.1980) whom he married in June 1947,[1][8] and subsequently married Maxine G. Malone in 1984. He was married a third time to Vera Wood Anderson in Chicago in September 2003. He had a daughter, Sharon, and a son, Wilkins III during his first marriage.[7][8]

J Ernest Wilkins Sr. was an equally notable figure, but in different spheres. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of Labor in 1954 by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and thus became the first African American to hold a sub-cabinet position in the United States Government. One of Wilkins' grandfathers was also notable for founding St. Mark's Methodist Church in New York City.[2]

In 2010 a niece of Wilkins, Carolyn Marie Wilkins, Professor of Music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, wrote of Wilkins' father and her family more generally in her biography Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success.[14]

Wilkins died on May 1, 2011 in Fountain Hills, Arizona.[1] He was survived by his two children, Sharon Wilkins Hill and J. Ernest Wilkins III,[1] plus three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery, Cave Creek, Arizona on May 5.[1]

Famous Quote: "One day I will fly to the moon with math."

Tributes and honors[edit]

Wilkins portrait and plaque honoring him in the Eckhart Hall Tea Room of the Physical Sciences Division, University of Chicago in 2007. (Courtesy: Dan Dry)
  • The Wilkins Effect, plus the Wigner-Wilkins and Wilkins Spectra, discovered during the 1940s, are named or co-named after him;[6]
  • In March 2007 Wilkins was honored by his alma mater, the University of Chicago, in a special ceremony that included the dedication of his portrait and a plaque in the Eckhart Hall Tea Room of its Physical Sciences Division;[5]
  • U.S. Army Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, 1980;[15]
  • NAM, Honorary Life Member, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994;[15]
  • QEM Network, Giant in Science Award, 1994;[15]
  • Department of Energy, Special Recognition Award, 1996;[15]
  • University of Chicago Alumni Association, Professional Achievement Citation, 1997.[15]


Some of Wilkins's memberships included: [15]

Selected writings and other works[edit]

As listed in this work:

  • with Herbert Goldstein and L. Volume Spencer, Systematic Calculations of Gamma-Ray Penetration, Physical Review, 1953;
  • "The Silverman Necessary Condition for Multiple Integrals in the Calculus of Variations", Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society, 1974;
  • "A Variational Problem in Hilbert Space, " Applied Mathematics and Optimization, 1975–76;
  • with Keshav N. Srivastava, "Minimum Critical Mass Nuclear Reactors, Part I and Part II", Nuclear Science and Engineering, 1982;
  • with J. N. Kibe, "Apodization for Maximum Central Irradiance and Specified Large Rayleigh Limit of Resolution, II ", Journal of the Optical Society of America A, Optics and Image Science, 1984;
  • "A Modulus of Continuity for a Class of Quasismooth Functions", Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society, 1985;
  • "An Asymptotic Expansion for the Expected Number of Real Zeros of a Random Polynomial", Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society, 1988;
  • "An Integral Inequality", Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society, 1991;
  • with Shantay A. Souter "Mean Number of Real Zeros of a Random Trigonometric Polynomial. III", Journal of Applied Mathematics and Stochastic Analysis, 1995;
  • "The Expected Value of the Number of Real Zeros of a Random Sum of Legendre Polynomials", Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society, 1997;
  • "Mean Number of Real Zeros of a Random Trigonometric Polynomial IV", Journal of Applied Mathematics and Stochastic Analysis, 1997;
  • "Mean Number of Real Zeros of a Random Hyperbolic Polynomial", International Journal of Mathematics and Mathematical Sciences, 2000.
Other work
  • "Optimization of Extended Surfaces for Heat Transfer", video recording, American Mathematical Society, 1994.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Chicago Tribune. Obituary: J. Ernest Wilkins, Chicago Tribune, May 4, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Zerbonia, Ralph G. (contrib. by Alic, Margaret) (2005) Contemporary Black Biography, Gale Research Inc, 2005, Vol.49 (Original from the University of Michigan), Digitized September 17, 2008, ISBN 0-7876-6731-5, ISBN 978-0-7876-6731-3.
  3. ^ Mathematicians of the African Diaspora. J Ernest Wilkins Jr., Department of Mathematics, University of Buffalo. Retrieved online May 7, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h U.S. Department Of Energy, Black Contributors to Science and Energy Technology (Biographical sketch: Ernest Wilkins), U.S. Department Of Energy, Office of Public Affairs, U.S.Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1979, pp. 14–15, DOE/OPA-0035(79)
  5. ^ a b University of Chicago. University of Chicago to Commemorate Accomplishments of Mathematics Alumnus J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. , University of Chicago News Office, February 27, 2007, updated July 23, 2007. Retrieved June 9, 2011.
  6. ^ a b Y., M.R., UofChicago Magazine. The Wilkins Effect, University of Chicago Magazine website, March 2, 2007. Retrieved June 9, 2011.
  7. ^ a b Ronald E. Mickens. "Obituary of J. Wilkins Jr. (1923-2011)". The American Institute of Physics. Archived from the original on 16 June 2013. Retrieved 24 June 2013. 
  8. ^ a b c Gates, Henry Louis & Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. African American Lives, Oxford University Press, U.S., 2004, pp.883-884, ISBN 0-19-516024-X, ISBN 978-0-19-516024-6.
  9. ^ Denise Kiernan (2013). The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Simon and Schuster. p. 47. ISBN 9781451617542. 
  10. ^ "Edward Teller Letter Concerning Black Mathematician". The National Archives at Atlanta. Archived from the original on 22 February 2014. Retrieved 9 February 2014. 
  11. ^ McTutor
  12. ^ a b Koppes, Steve. University of Chicago to Commemorate Accomplishments of Mathematics Alumnus J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. (media release), News Office, University of Chicago, February 27, 2007.
  13. ^ IEEE Biography: Wilkins Jr. Archived 2012-05-26 at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ Wilkins, Carolyn Marie. Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success, University of Missouri Press, 2010, ISBN 0-8262-1899-7, ISBN 978-0-8262-1899-5.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Alic, Margaret. J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., Gale Contemporary Black Biography, 2006. Retrieved from Answers.com

External links[edit]