Like many thirteen-year-olds, J. Ernest Wilkins liked to attend parties with other kids his age. He also liked sports. He was even a whiz at table tennis, winning the State of Illinois boy’s championship in 1938.
But Wilkins was also different from many of his friends. He studied difficult mathematics, like calculus and trigonometry. Instead of attending middle school, he was a student at the University of Chicago—the youngest student to ever be enrolled there. Over the next seven decades, Wilkins contributed to the fields of mathematics, nuclear engineering, and optics. He even worked on the Manhattan Project, which was the name of the United States’ program to develop an atomic bomb during World War II.
A Child Prodigy
Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1923. He and his younger brothers John and Julian grew up in the Wooldlawn area in the city’s South Side. Their mother, Lucille, was a school teacher with degrees in history and education. Their father, J. Ernest Wilkins Sr., was a prominent lawyer who was later appointed Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Jesse, who preferred to be called J. Ernest as an adult, was a precocious student. He graduated from Willard Elementary School at age 10 and from Parker High School at age 13. He enrolled at the University of Chicago to study law so he could become a lawyer like his father.
Unfortunately, it was not possible for anyone under 21 in Illinois to take the test needed to become a lawyer. Until he was old enough to practice law, Wilkins decided to focus on his other interest, mathematics. He was a fast learner. Wilkins earned his PhD when he was only 19 years old. That same year, Wilkins became the first teenager to be accepted into the Institute for Advanced Study program at Princeton University.
The Manhattan Project
After college, Wilkins taught at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In 1944, he returned to the University of Chicago to work on the Manhattan Project. The United States was fighting World War II, and the Manhattan Project gathered some of the world’s best scientists to determine how to build an atomic bomb. Wilkins worked under Enrico Fermi, Arthur Compton, and Eugene Wigner, all of whom would make important contributions to physics. In his new job, he learned how to do math using one of the first computers. Trained as a mathematician, Wilkins learned the details of science while he worked.
In the fall of 1944, Wilkins’s team at the university was being transferred to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to a top-secret laboratory that was known only by the code letter X. Wilkins had a problem. That he had a brilliant mind was never in doubt. Wilkins, however, was African American, and laws in southern states like Tennessee prevented African Americans from holding such important posts.
Edward Teller, a key member of the Manhattan Project and the chief developer of the hydrogen bomb, didn’t want to see his young colleague’s talents go to waste. He wrote a letter to Harold Urey, the director of war research at Columbia University, recommending Wilkins for his team. “Knowing that men of high qualifications are scarce these days, I thought that it might be useful that I suggest a capable person for this job,” Teller wrote, “He is a colored man and since Wigner’s group is moving to X it is not possible for him to continue work with that group.”
Post War Career
Once World War II was over and his work with the Manhattan Project complete, Wilkins realized that he was not going to study law. He started looking for work. Although he received job offers from several universities, Wilkins decided to go into private industry because the pay was better. Wilkins first worked as a mathematician for the American Optical Company in Buffalo, N.Y., designing lenses.
During the 1950s, he held a variety of positions at the United Nuclear Corporation in White Plains, New York. As a senior mathematician and manager of the Physics and Mathematics departments, Wilkins oversaw a range of research and development projects and worked closely with the Atomic Energy Commission. Like many scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, he was always interested in the peaceful use of atomic energy.
Although he was already an accomplished scientist and mathematician, Wilkins never stopped learning. Because he frequently worked with engineers, he decided that he would be better at his job if he learned engineering himself. Studying at night, he went on to earn bachelors and masters degrees in that subject.
In 1970, Wilkins became the Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematical Physics at Howard University, where he founded the university’s PhD program in mathematics. Howard was the first traditional African American university to have such a program. He would go on to serve other important posts in his fields of study. In 1974, he was named president of the American Nuclear Society, and in 1976, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, From 1977-1984, he worked at EG&G Idaho, Inc., where he was Vice President and Associate General Manager for Science and Engineering.
As an educator, Wilkins was especially concerned with recruiting other African Americans into mathematics and science. He ended his career in the 1990s as Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. He died in 2011.
As he got older, Wilkins always valued the times he worked with young students, saying, “It’s one way to keep yourself mentally alert!”
Discover more African American scientists at the Library of Congress.
Images and Sources
J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. Illustration: U.S. Department Of Energy
J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. Illustration License: Public Domain