African-American Pioneers in Science

J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. (1923 - 2011)

J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. Photo



Chicago, Illinois


B.S., M.S., Ph.D., Mathematics, University of Chicago
B.S., M.S., Mechanical Engineering, New York University

  • J. Ernest Wilkins Jr.
  • African-American pioneer in physics
  • Worked as mathematical physicist for U.S "Manhattan Project".
  • Became one of the foremost authorities on nuclear power generation and nuclear power plant construction
  • Developed mathematical formulas (still used today) for radiation shielding from gamma rays
  • Second African-American (after Walter Lincoln Hawkins, 1975) to be elected to National Academy of Engineering (1976)

Physicist, mathematician and engineer J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. was born on Novemeber 27, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois. The son of lawyer J. Ernest Wilkins Sr. and his wife, teacher Lucille Beatrice Robinson, Wilkins was greatly encouraged in his academic pursuits by his accomplished parents. He entered into the University of Chicago at the age of 13, at the time the youngest student ever to register there. He graduated in 1940 at age 17 with a B.S. in mathematics, receiving his M.S and Ph.D. in the subject over the next two years. Wilkins became the first teenager to be accepted into the Institute for Advanced Study program at Princeton, on a Rosenwald scholarship, at age 19.

Later in his career, he also earned degrees in mechanical engineering (B.S in 1957 and M.S. in 1960) at New York University.

Dr. Wilkins' list of accomplishments is extensive. He taught mathematics at the Tuskegee Institute (today Tuskegee University) from 1943 to 1944, before joining (1944 - 1946) the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago to work on the Manhattan Project (the U.S. program that built the atomic bomb). Dr. Wilkins' career spanned decades, and was unique in its combination of academic, governmental, and private industry positions. In the course of his career he held these positions - mathematician for the American Optical Company in Buffalo, N.Y, 1946 - 1950, (developing the mathematics needed to construct lenses for high-power telescopes), senior mathematican for United Nuclear Corporation in White Plains, N.Y., 1950 - 1960, (directing design work for nuclear power generation on ships and submarines), director at General Atomic Company in San Diego, California, 1960 - 1970, (in charge of nuclear power design), professor of applied mathematics and physics at Howard University, 1970 - 1976, senior physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, Chicago Illinois, 1976, (working on nuclear power design), senior director at Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Idaho Falls, 1977 - 1984, (in charge of low-cost nucler power plant design), visiting scientist, fellow, and consultant at Argonne National Laboratory, 1984 - 1990, and finally distinguished professor of applied mathematics and mathematical physics at Clark Atlanta University from 1990 on.

Among his many contributions to science and technology, Dr. Wilkins' foremost achievement was the study and development of radiation shielding against gamma radiation. It was through his work that the calculations of radiation absorption by physical materials were formed, creating breakthroughs in the understanding of nuclear power's impact.

During his career, Dr. Wilkins wrote over 100 technical papers published in a host of scientific journals. He established the first Ph.D. program in mathematics at an HBCU (Howard University), served as president of the American Nuclear Society and in 1976 became the second African-American elected to the National Academy of Engineering (after Walter Lincoln Hawkins in 1975).

Despite his achievements and contributions in the fields of mathematics, engineering, and physics, his early career was not always smooth in a segregated United States. However, Dr. Wilkins persevered. Always an educator, he spent many years working for the recruitment of young African-Americans into the sciences.