In Chicago, 1923, J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. was born to parents J. Earnest and Lucille B. Wilkins. Both of his parents were highly accomplished individuals in their own right. His father was an attorney who eventually became the first African American to serve in a sub-Cabinet position as assistant Secretary of Labor in the Eisenhower Administration and his mother had a master’s in education and taught in the Chicago Public School System. The importance of education was well established in his household, as J. Ernest completed grade school by 10, high school by 13, and went to his parents’ Alma Mater, the University of Chicago, as their youngest freshman at 13 years old.
Wilkins earned a bachelors in mathematics in 1940 at 17 years old. He hoped to pursue his ambition to become a lawyer like his father, but this goal was hampered by his youth (he had to be 21 to take the bar exam). Because he couldn’t take the bar exam, he decided to get his masters in mathematics the next year and then went on to earn his Ph.D. in 1942 at the ripe old age of 19. Dr. Wilkins was still too young to be a lawyer so he took a fellowship at the Institute of Advance Study at Princeton University in the fall of 1942. Earning a deferral from the Army, which reduced its draft age to 19 in 1942, he took on a teaching position at Tuskegee Institute for a year. The following year, his connections at the University of Chicago landed him a job at the Metallurgical Laboratory the home of the Manhattan Project.
Dr. Wilkins worked with Arthur Holly Compton and Enrico Fermi, on research of fissionable material. When his team was to be transferred to the top-secret site X, located in the Jim Crow South, Dr. Wilkins refused to work in the second-class conditions that were required of a person of color. Luckily, his quality of work preceded him and Edward Teller (father of the Hydrogen Bomb) recommended Dr. Wilkins for a new position. He continued his contributions and was instrumental in the development of important nuclear reactor mathematical models named after him (i.e. the Wilkins Effect, Wigner-Wilkins, and Wilkins Spectra). There are conflicting stories about how much Dr. Wilkins knew about the goals of his research, but he was a signatory of the Szilárd petition urging Roosevelt, and then Truman, to offer terms of surrender to the Japanese before using the atomic bomb. Nevertheless, he used much of his remaining career to develop non-military uses for nuclear power.
With the war over and his research on the atomic bomb completed, Dr. Wilkins was now only 22 years old and had the rest of his life ahead of him. He lived to the ripe old age of 87 years, dying in 2011, and his accomplishments are extraordinarily numerous. He spent many years in the private sector working for companies pursuing peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as well as optics and other engineering endeavors. In order to counter the skepticism of his engineering underlings he decided to get a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering in 1957 and 1960 respectively. After a career in private industry, Dr. Wilkins the mathematician, physicist, and mechanical engineer was persuaded to take on academia. Starting in 1970, he served as Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematical Physics at Howard University creating the first Ph. D program in mathematics at an Historically Black College/University. After returning briefly to the private sector and a one year stint at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, Dr. Wilkins retired in 1985. This lasted only 5 years before he became Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University, which he held until he finally retired in 2003.
Featured Image By U.S. Department Of Energy U.S. Government Printing Office, U.S. Department of Energy – Public Domain,