J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr.

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr.
J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr.
Mathematician and Nuclear Scientist

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. (2007)
(Courtesy: Dan Dry, U of Chicago Magazine)
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
Fields Mathematics and Physics
Alma mater University of Chicago
Known for Mathematics and the nuclear sciences

Jesse Ernest Wilkins, Jr. (November 27, 1923 – May 1, 2011) was an African American mathematician and nuclear scientist, who gained first fame on entering the University of Chicago at age 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]

During his studies and various careers he was not untouched by the prevalent racism that existed for much of his life.[2]



In 1940 Wilkins completed his B.Sc. in mathematics at age 17, then his M.Sc. at age 18, and finally went on to complete a Ph.D in mathematics at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1942 at age 19.[4] 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 1957 and 1960,[2][7] thus earning five science degrees during his life.


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 called Tuskegee University) in Alabama.[2]

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.[7]

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]

Sketch from a U.S. Department of Energy biography of Wilkins[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[8][4] and in 1976 became the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering.[9][4]

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][9]

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][10]

Personal and family

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

Wilkins' father J Ernest Wilkins, Sr. was an equally notable figure, but in different spheres. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of Labor in 1954 by 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 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.[11]

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-grand-children, and was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery, Cave Creek, Arizona on May 5.[1]

Tributes and honours

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 Wikins 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]

Selected writings and other works

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


  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 i j Zerbonia, Ralph G. (contrib. by Alic, Margaret) (2005) Contemporary Black Biography, Gale Research Inc, 2005, Vol.49 (Original from the University of Michigan), Digitized Sep 17, 2008, ISBN 0787667315, ISBN 9780787667313, (biography viewable via Answers.com);
  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 i 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 c d Gates, Henry Louis & Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. African American Lives, Oxford University Press, U.S., 2004, pp.883-884, ISBN 019516024X, ISBN 9780195160246.
  8. ^ McTutor
  9. ^ a b University of Chicago news release
  10. ^ IEEE
  11. ^ Wilkins, Carolyn Marie. Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success, University of Missouri Press, 2010, ISBN 0826218997, ISBN 9780826218995.

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