Black History Month Profile: Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr.

Do you think you could have attended university at the age of 13? Do you think significant contributions to academia, industry, and fame would spare you from racism? This is about the mathematical genius, mechanical engineer and nuclear scientist, Jesse Ernest Wilkins Junior: who became the youngest person to graduate from Chicago University at the age of 17. He went on to obtain a PhD in mathematics at the age of just 19. For seven decades Wilkins, nicknamed the “negro genius” by the media, has contributed to several scientific fields including pure and applied mathematics, optic, civil, and nuclear engineering. He was a prominent African-American scientist born in 1923 and passed away in 2011 at the age of 88. 

His early projects included working on the Manhattan Project during the second world war. There he lived under curfew away from his family, and shared plywood shacks that had no plumbing with other Black employees. Wilkins worked with Enrico Fermi and Arthur Crompton on producing fissionable nuclear materials, but learnt about the devastating purpose of his research after the infamous atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima in 1945, despite Wilkins signing a petition that the bomb would not be used before Japan was offered terms to surrender. He has also contributed to development of mathematical models to explain the amount of gamma radiation absorbed by a material, and subsequently developed a shield against gamma radiation. This has massively helped scientists in space and nuclear science projects.

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Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. honoured by the University of Chicago. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. was a member of many notable professional societies and has served as President of American Nuclear Society, Council Member of American Mathematical Society, and was awarded the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal by the US Army. He was also Assistant Chairman of the Theoretical Physics Department and Assistant Director of Atomic Division of General Dynamics Corporation. He has been referred to as “Wilkins-effect”, “Wilkins-spectra” and “Wigner-Wilkins” in Manhattan District reports for his contribution for thermal neutrons. 

To learn more about extended Wilkins family, consider reading the funny-but-serious book: Damn Near White: An African American Family’s Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success by Carolyn Marie Wilkins.

By Sakina Amin

Header image: We Rep STEM