Wilkins, J. Ernest Jr. 1923–

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J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. 1923

Mathematician, physicist, nuclear engineer

Proclaimed a Child Prodigy

Published His First Mathematical Papers

Joined the Manhattan Project

Became a Nuclear Engineer

Moved From Academia to Industry

Known for Research on Radiation Shielding

Recruited Young Blacks to Scientific Careers

Selected writings


J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., is well known for his important contributions in the fields of nuclear engineering and theoretical and applied mathematics and physics. He has had an unusually varied career, moving in and out of academia, government, and industry. His teaching and mentoring at historically black universities has encouraged young blacks to choose careers in science, mathematics, and engineering. During World War II Wilkins worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Later he served as president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS). Wilkins is best known for his work on radiation shielding and his contributions to early nuclear reactor design and the development of optical instruments for space exploration. He is also a distinguished professor of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Proclaimed a Child Prodigy

Jesse Ernest Wilkins, Jr., was born in Chicago on November 27, 1923. His father, J. Ernest Wilkins, Sr., was a well-known lawyer who held a bachelors degree in mathematics from the University of Illinois and a law degree from the University of Chicago. In 1941 and 1942 the elder Wilkins served as president of the Cook County Bar Association in Chicago. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him Assistant Secretary of Labor in 1954, the first black American to hold a sub-cabinet position. In 1958 he was appointed to the Civil Rights Commission. Wilkinss mother, Lucile Beatrice Robinson Wilkins, held bachelors and masters degrees in education from the University of Chicago, and taught in Chicago public schools. Wilkins maternal grandfather had founded St. Marks Methodist Church in New York City, and the family were active churchgoers.

Given their backgrounds, it is hardly surprising that Wilkinss parents stressed the importance of education and achievement. An extremely bright child, Wilkins entered Willard Elementary School at the age of four, skipping grades until he found himself in the fifth grade at the age of seven. Although his two brothers became lawyers, Wilkins was more interested in mathematics. His parents encouraged his early interests, and soon he was solving a variety of mathematical puzzles. At Parker High School, Wilkinss math teacher recognized

At a Glance

Born Jesse Ernest Wilkins, Jr., on November 27, 1923, in Chicago, IL; son of J. Ernest and Lucile Beatrice (Robinson) Wilkins, Sr.; married Gloria Louise Stewart (deceased); married Maxine G. Malone (deceased); children: (first marriage) Sharon Wilkins Hill, J. Emest III. Education: University of Chicago, BS, 1940, MS, 1941, PhD, 1942; New York University, BME, 1957, MME, 1960.

Career: Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, postdoctoral research fellow, 1942-43; Tuskegee Institute, mathematics instructor, 1943-44; University of Chicago, Metallurgical laboratory, physicist, 1944-46; American Optical Co., mathematician, 1946-50; NDA (UNC), numerous positions, 1950-59, manager, 1959-60; General Dynamics Corp., General Atomic div., Theoretical Physics dept., 1960-65, John Jay Hopkins Laboratory, asst. dir., Defense Science and Engineering Center, dir., computational research, 1965-70; Howard Univ., distinguished prof., 1970-77; Argonne National Laboratory, visiting scientist, 1976-77, fellow, 1984-85, consultant 1985-90; EG&G Idaho, various positions, 1977-84; Clark Atlanta University, distinguished prof., 1990-; Georgia Institute of Technology, adjunct prof., 1995-.

Selected memberships: American Society of Mechanical Engineers; ANS, board of directors, 1967-77, president, 1974-75; NRC, Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, chairman, 1990-94; Oak Ridge Assn. Univ., council, 1990; U.S. Army Science Board, chairman, 1970-2001.

Selected awards: U.S. Army Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, 1980; NAM, Honorary Life Member, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994; QEM Network, Giant in Science Award, 1994; DOE, Special Recognition Award, 1996; Univ. of Chicago Alumni Association, Professional Achievement Citation, 1997.

Addresses: Home 587 Virginia Avenue NE, No. 612, Atlanta, GA 30306. Office Department of Mathematics, Box J, Clark Atlanta University, James P Brawley Dr. at Fair St. SW, Atlanta, GA 30314-4839.

his talent and accelerated his coursework. He also participated in track, tennis, and baseball.

Wilkins entered the nearby University of Chicago at the age of 13the youngest student ever admitted. University scholarships covered his tuition. He lived at home and tutored other students to earn spending money. While majoring in mathematics, Wilkins took extra courses and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1940 at the age of 16. That same year he ranked in the top ten in the prestigious William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition for undergraduates. In addition, Wilkins won the boys state table tennis championship in 1938 and was the universitys champion for three years. Using the graduate credits he had earned as an undergraduate, Wilkins was awarded his masters degree in mathematics in 1941. The following year, at the age of 19, Wilkins earned a doctoral degree from the University of Chicago. Newspapers around the country proclaimed him the Negro genius.

Published His First Mathematical Papers

Wilkinss dissertation, completed under Magnus R. Hestenes, was titled Multiple Integral Problems in Parametric Form in the Calculus of Variations. He was the eighth black American, and one of the youngest Americans ever, to earn a Ph.D. degree in mathematics. A Rosenwald Scholarship enabled Wilkins to spend 1942 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, as a postdoctoral research fellow.

Despite his outstanding credentials, Wilkins could not find a position at a research university. During 1943 and 1944 he was a mathematics instructor at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), a historically black school in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was the first year that the institute offered graduate-level courses.

Wilkins published his first two research papers, both on geometry, in 1943. During the following year he published four more papers, three on differential and integral equations and problems, including his revised Ph.D. dissertation, and one on statistics.

Joined the Manhattan Project

Wilkins returned to work at the University of Chicago in 1944, first as an associate mathematical physicist and then as a physicist, in the Metallurgical Laboratory. Under Arthur Holly Compton and Enrico Fermi, the laboratory was developing a method for producing fissionable material for a nuclear bombplutonium 239. It was not until August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, that Wilkins understood the goal of his research.

While at Chicago, Wilkins taught mathematics and collaborated with the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner. Their research on the absorption of neutrons led to the Wigner-Wilkins approach for estimating the distribution of neutron energies within nuclear reactors. Their joint paper, written in 1944 and declassified in 1948, eventually was published in Wigners Collected Works.

In 1946 Wilkins moved to industry, as a mathematician for the American Optical Company in Buffalo, New York. There he tested optical techniques for the development of lenses for large telescopes. Wilkins married Gloria Louise Stewart on June 22, 1947, and the couple had two children. In 1947 Wilkins was invited to attend the American Mathematical Society (AMS) meeting at the University of Georgia. The committee informed him that they had found a black family with whom he could stay and take his meals, since he would not be able to join the other delegates in the segregated hotel. Offended by their racism, Wilkins never attended an AMS meeting in the Southeast.

Became a Nuclear Engineer

Like many scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Wilkins was fascinated by the potential peaceful applications of atomic energy. In 1950 he became a senior mathematician at the Nuclear Development Corporation of America (NDA), later United Nuclear Corporation (UNC), in White Plains, New York. In 1955 he became manager of the Physics and Mathematics department and in 1958 he was promoted again, first to assistant manager and then to manager of research and development. Between 1950 and 1957 NDAs scientific staff grew from seven to more than 300. In 1955 Wilkins was a delegate to a conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The following year he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Realizing that many of his engineering colleagues at NDA were not consulting with the mathematicians, Wilkins decided that he should become an engineer. He earned a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering, magna cum laude, in 1957, and a masters degree in mechanical engineering in 1960, both from New York University. He now was qualified to work on the design and construction of nuclear facilities.

In 1960 Wilkins moved to the General Atomic division of General Dynamics Corporation in San Diego, California, first as administrator and then as assistant chairman of the Theoretical Physics department. He later became assistant director of the Atomic division. In 1965 Wilkins was promoted, first to assistant director of the John Jay Hopkins Laboratory, then to director of the Defense Science and Engineering Center, and finally to director of Computational Research.

Moved From Academia to Industry

Wilkins remained with General Dynamics until 1970, when he moved to Howard University in Washington, D.C., as distinguished professor of Applied Mathematical Physics. At Howard, Wilkins was instrumental in establishing a doctoral program in mathematics, the only such program at a historically black university. During his seven years at Howard, Wilkins directed four doctoral dissertations. He spent his 1976-77 sabbatical as a visiting scientist at the U.S. Department of Energys (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois.

After being elected a fellow of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) in 1964, Wilkins held various offices in the society, serving on the board of directors from 1967-77 and as president from 1974-75. In recognition of his contributions to the design and development of nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes, in 1976 Wilkins became only the second black American to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). This academy advises the federal government on issues of science and technology. Wilkins also served on advisory committees on science and engineering education for the NAE, the National Research Council, and various other organizations and universities. He was a council member of the AMS from 1975-77. In 1980 Wilkins was awarded the U.S. Armys Outstanding Civilian Service Medal.

In 1977 Wilkins became vice president and associate general manager for science and engineering at EG&G Idaho, Inc., in Idaho Falls, Idaho. EG&G Idaho operated the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory for the DOE, developing new uses for nuclear energy and designing low-cost nuclear power plants. While remaining a vice president, in 1978 Wilkins was promoted to deputy general manager for science and engineering.

In addition to his other activities, Wilkins was the joint owner of a company that designed and developed nuclear reactors for generating electrical power. He also worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on issues of reactor safety. On June 2, 1984, Wilkins married Maxine G. Malone.

After retiring from EG&G Idaho in 1984, Wilkins spent a year as a fellow at Argonne National Laboratory. He continued as a consultant there until 1990, when he was appointed as distinguished professor of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University. In 1995 Wilkins also became an adjunct professor at the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Known for Research on Radiation Shielding

During the course of his career Wilkins published some 100 research papers in the fields of pure and applied mathematics, optics and optical optimization problems, and nuclear engineering. He also wrote 22 unpublished reports for the Atomic Energy Commission. His nuclear engineering research led to publications on the design, operation, and heat transfer of nuclear reactors.

Wilkins may be best known for his research on the penetration of gamma-rays, conducted in collaboration with Herbert Goldstein and published in Physical Review in 1953. Wilkins developed mathematical models for the calculation of the amount of gamma radiation absorbed by a given material. This work was crucial for the development of shielding to absorb gamma radiation emitted by the sun and other nuclear sources and was instrumental for both nuclear reactor design and space research.

Between 1943 and 1997 Wilkins published 46 mathematical research papers. As a theoretical mathematician he made contributions in the fields of Bessel functions, differential and integral equations, and the calculus of variations. In addition, he has published papers on the estimation of the number of real roots of random polynomials.

Recruited Young Blacks to Scientific Careers

Wilkins has been involved with the Urban League for many years, working for racial equality in all areas of life. In 1992 he gave a lecture to a joint meeting of the AMS and the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) in Baltimore, Maryland. His lecture was on heat transferspecifically on the mathematics of designing fins for expelling heat from an engine. The AMS produced a video of the lecture and an interview with Wilkins, in which he described some of the mathematical problems that have interested him during his career. He also spoke about the difficulties of recruiting under-represented groups, including blacks, for careers in science and mathematics. The AMS banquet honored Wilkins as the longest-term AMS member, with a tenure of 61 years.

Wilkins was the keynote speaker at the First Annual Conference for African-American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS1) in 1995, and in 1999 he was an invited speaker at CAARMS5 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1994 Wilkins gave the inaugural lecture at the Undergraduate MATHfest, a mathematics research conference for minority undergraduates sponsored by the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM). Since then the J. Ernest Wilkins Lecture has been presented annually at MATHfest. The J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. Award for Life Sciences, an oral research competition, is given at EMERGE conferences. EMERGE stands for Empowering Minority Engineers/Scientists to Reach for Graduate Education. Morgan State University in Baltimore has established the J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. Distinguished Professorship in Physics.

In 1998 Wilkins gave a presentation at the Scholarly Productivity Workshop for Junior Faculty from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, sponsored by the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. Wilkins is on the advisory board for the Spelman Science and Mathematics Journal and has continued to give invited lectures and pursue mathematical research.

Selected writings


(With Robert L. Hellens and Paul E. Zweifel) Status of Experimental and Theoretical Information on Neutron Slowing-Down Distributions in Hydrogenous Media, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, United Nations, 1956.

The Landau Constants, in Progress in Approximation Theory, Nevai, Paul and Allan Pinkus, eds., Academic Press, 1991.

(With E. P. Wigner) Effect of the Temperature of the Moderator on the Velocity Distribution of Neutrons With Numerical Calculations for H as a Moderator, in The Collected Works of Eugene Paul Wigner, Springer-Verlag, 1992.

Mean Number of Real Zeroes of a Random Trigonometric Polynomial. II, in Topics in Polynomials of One or Several Variables and Their Applications, World Scientific Publishing, 1993.


(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 Mathematics 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 Mathematics Society, 1985.

An Asymptotic Expansion for the Expected Number of Real Zeros of a Random Polynomial, Proceedings of the American Mathematics Society, 1988.

An Integral Inequality, Proceedings of the American Mathematics Society, 1991.

(With Shantay A. Souter) Mean Number of Real Zeros of a Random Trigonometric Polynomial. Ill, 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 Mathematics 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.


Optimization of Extended Surfaces for Heat Transfer, video recording, American Mathematical Society, 1994.



Agwu, Nkechi and Asamoah Nkwanta, in African Americans in Mathematics: DIMACS Workshop, June 26-28, 1996, Dean, Nathaniel, ed., American Mathematical Society, 1997, pp. 195-205.

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., in Notable Scientists from 1900 to the Present, Gale, 2001.

Kessler, James H., J. S. Kidd, Renee A. Kidd, and Katherine A. Morin, Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century, Oryx Press, 1996, pp. 331-334.


J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (November 16, 2003).

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., MAA Online, www.maa.org/summa/archive/WilkinsJ.htm (November 19, 2003).

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., Mathematicians of the African Diaspora, www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/PEEPS/wilkns_jearnest.html (November 19, 2003).

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., Princeton University Website, www.gopher.princeton.edu/~mcbrown/display/wilkins.html (November 19, 2003).

Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr., Mac Tutor History of Mathematics archive, www-history.mcs.stand.ac.uk/Mathematicians/Wilkins_Ernest.html (November 19, 2003).

Margaret Alic

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