Can you imagine going to college at 13? Well that’s exactly what J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. did when he entered the University of Chicago in 1937 as one of the youngest students to ever attend this distinguished institution. What makes him even more unique is that Wilkins was an African American. He went on to complete his bachelors, masters and Phd degrees in mathematics by the age of 19 earning him the title of the negro genius! He was awarded a Rosenwald scholarship that same year to further his studies at Princeton University.
Wilkins was born in 1923 in Chicago Illinois to educator Lucille Beatrice Robinson Wilkins and Attorney Ernest Wilkins who would later serve under President Dwight D. Eisenhower as Assistant Secretary of Labor. Wilkins Jr. began his professional career teaching mathematics at Tuskegee Institute but went on to pursue positions in private industry with American Optical Company, General Nuclear Corporation (later General Dynamics) and General Atomic Company. He is distinguished as one of the key research personnel attached to the Manhattan Project which was responsible for the development of the atomic bomb. His collaboration with Eugene Wigner produced major research in neutron absorption known as the Wigner-Wilkins Approach which contributed significantly to the development of nuclear energy. The goal was to tap this new source of power as a major form of alternative energy. Wilkins was unaware of the government’s intention to use their research to develop a weapon. He and many of his colleagues took a bold step and signed a letter of protest urging President Harry Truman to rethink the government’s military agenda based on what they feared would be a devastating outcome for mankind.
The years that followed found Wilkins accepting positions in many academic and research environments including Howard University, various engineering firms and the Argonne National Laboratory of the U. S. Department of Energy as a distinguished fellow. His final assignment was a Distinguished Professorship in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University which he held until his retirement in 2003. He died at the age of 87 and was buried in Fountain Hills, Arizona.
Who knew this 13 year old math genius would play a key role in helping us find the next source of power to replace fossil fuels! Our Black History month salute goes out to J. Ernest Wilkins, nuclear scientist who helped pave the way to a brighter future in renewable energy!
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