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Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins
*J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. was born on this date in 1923. He was a Black mathematician and teacher.
From Chicago, IL Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins' father J. Ernest Wilkins, Sr. was appointed Assistant Secretary of Labor in 1954 by president Dwight D. Eisenhower and thus became the first African American to hold a sub-cabinet position in the United States Government. One of Wilkins' grandfathers was also notable for founding St. Mark's Methodist Church in New York City.
Wilkins Jr. first attracted nationwide attention by receiving his college degree at age 17 and his doctorate from the University of Chicago at 19. Wilkins received his Bachelor of Science in 1941, Master of Science in 1941, and Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1942. He also got a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering in 1942 from New York University, followed by a Master of Mechanical Engineering in 1960.
Wilkins was an Instructor of Mathematics at the Tuskegee Institute from 1943 to 1944 and an Associate Physicist to Physicist on the Manhattan Project from 1944 to 1946. He taught math and did research at University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory, where Enrico Fermi’s research group on the atomic bomb project was conducting work. From 1946 to 1950 Wilkins was a Mathematician for the American Optical Company; from 1950 to 1955 he served as a Senior Mathematician for the Nuclear Development Corporation of America.
Wilkins was Manager of Physics and Mathematics Department (1958-1959), later served as Manager (1960-1965). He was an Assistant Chairman of the Theoretical Physics Department, General Atomic Division of General Dynamics Corporation from 1960 to 1965 and Assistant Director of the laboratory from 1965 to 1970. In 1970, Dr. Wilkins was appointed as Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematical Physics at Howard University. Dr. Wilkins Jr. was a joint owner of a company which designed and developed nuclear reactors for electrical power generation.
Dr. Wilkins, Jr. primary achievement has been the development of radiation shielding against gamma radiation, emitted during electron decay of the Sun and other nuclear sources. He developed mathematical models by which the amount of gamma radiation absorbed by a given material can be calculated. This technique of calculating radioactive absorption is widely used among researcher in space and nuclear science projects. From 1977-1984 he worked at EG&G Idaho, Inc. (Idaho Falls, ID), rising from Vice President and Associate General Manager for Science and Engineering to Vice President and Deputy General Manager for Science and Engineering. In 1984-85 he was an Argonne Fellow at the Argonne National Laboratory and he was in retirement from 1985-1990. Many groups and organizations have recognized his outstanding achievements, the latest being the National Association of Mathematicians, who elected him an Honorary Life Member in 1994.
Wilkins had two children with his first wife Gloria Louise Steward (d.1980) whom he married in June 1947, and subsequently married Maxine G. Malone. He was married a third time to Vera Wood Anderson in Chicago in September 2003. J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. died on May 1, 2011 in Fountain Hills, Arizona.
University of Chicago
Image, Dan Dry, University of Chicago.