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At age 13, J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. was one of the youngest students ever admitted to the University of Chicago. In 1942, at age 19, Wilkins became the seventh African American to earn a PhD in mathematics from UChicago. He later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from New York University, obtaining a total of five science degrees throughout his lifetime.


The mathematician, nuclear scientist, and optics researcher was born November 27, 1923, in Chicago. After graduating from UChicago, he began his seven-decade career as a member of the mathematics faculty at the Tuskegee Institute. In 1944, he returned to Chicago, joining UChicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. He worked with Arthur Compton and Enrico Fermi researching fissionable nuclear materials–particularly plutonium and the reactors needed to create it–as part of the Manhattan Project. He and physicist Eugene Wigner studied neutron absorption and scattering. The Wigner-Wilkins approach for determining the energy distribution of neutrons in nuclear reactors forms one of the foundations for understanding and designing reactors.


A signatory of the Szilard Petition, which urged restraint in the use of nuclear weapons, Wilkins stayed at UChicago until 1946. He then worked as a mathematician at the American Optical Company and held a variety of positions at the Nuclear Development Corporation of America. In 1970, he became a distinguished professor of applied mathematical physics at Howard University, where he helped found the university’s PhD program in mathematics. He also served as president of the American Nuclear Society and a visiting scientist and distinguished fellow at Argonne National Laboratory. He became the second African American elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1976. He retired in 2003, after serving for 13 years as a distinguished professor at Clark Atlanta University. He died May 1, 2011, in Fountain Hills, Arizona.

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Math prodigy (PhD‘42) whose foundational work in nuclear physics had applications in nuclear energy and space research

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Photo Source: Courtesy of the American Nuclear Society 

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