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University of Chicago to commemorate accomplishments of mathematics alumnus J. Ernest Wilkins Jr.

Feb. 27, 2007

J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., who received a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago as a 19-year-old in 1942, will be honored by the University at a special event beginning at 2 p.m. Friday, March 2, in room 209 of Eckhart Hall, 1118 E. 58th Street.

Among his many achievements, Wilkins in 1976 became the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest honors an engineer can receive.

“The University of Chicago Mathematics Department has extremely high standards. It’s been an outstanding department for quite some time,” said Robert Fefferman, Dean of the Physical Sciences Division and the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics at the University of Chicago. “It’s extraordinary for someone 19 years old to get a Ph.D. from a department of that quality in a very rigorous subject.”

The University will commemorate Wilkins’s achievements by hanging his portrait and a plaque in his honor in the Eckhart Hall Tea Room, one of the most elegant spaces in the Physical Sciences Division.

The following speakers will present brief remarks at the event:

  • Robert Fefferman, Dean of the Physical Sciences Division, University of Chicago;
  • Kenneth Warren, Deputy Provost for Minority Affairs and Research and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature, University of Chicago;
  • Walter Massey, President of Morehouse College in Atlanta and a Trustee of the University of Chicago;
  • Johnny Houston, Executive Secretary Emeritus of the National Association of Mathematicians and Senior Research Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.

“I believe this event will not only honor Dr. Wilkins, but it will be a great opportunity for the University,” Fefferman said. “He is such a fabulous role model that his example should encourage brilliant African American mathematics and science faculty members and students to choose Chicago as their academic home.”

The history of the physical sciences at the University of Chicago is rife with significant contributions from individuals of widely diverse backgrounds. Just two examples include Alberto Calderón of Argentina and theoretical astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar of India. They were two of the most influential thinkers in their fields during the 20th century, Fefferman said.

Without such people, “this would be a very different university in math and science,” Fefferman said. “We would probably be lucky to be in the top hundred science universities in the United States, maybe even in the top 200. It’s just so absurd not to welcome everyone who wants to participate in what I consider a very compelling and noble adventure, discovering great science.”

Wilkins, 83, was born in Chicago to J. Ernest Wilkins Sr., a lawyer who served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor from 1954 to 1958, and Lucile Beatrice Robinson, a teacher. The younger Wilkins enrolled at the University of Chicago at the age of 13 in 1936. At age 17 he received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics ranked in the top 10 in the Putnam Competition, a national undergraduate mathematics contest. Wilkins remained at the University of Chicago for graduate study in mathematics, receiving his master’s degree in 1941 and his Ph.D. in 1942.

Wilkins conducted postdoctoral research at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., then joined the faculty of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he taught from 1942 to 1944. He returned to Chicago in 1944 to work on the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to build the atomic bomb. At the Manhattan Project, Wilkins worked with future Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner and made contributions to nuclear-reactor physics now known as the Wilkins effect and the Wigner-Wilkins spectrum.

Following the Manhattan Project, Wilkins worked as a mathematician for the American Optical Company in Buffalo, N.Y., designing lenses for microscopes and ophthalmologic uses. He held a variety of positions at the United Nuclear Corporation from 1950 to 1960. As manager of United Nuclear’s Research and Development Division, Wilkins oversaw a staff of approximately 30 scientists who did contract work for the Atomic Energy Commission.

During this time Wilkins entered New York University to obtain formal training as a mechanical engineer. There he earned a bachelor’s degree, with magna cum laude honors, in 1957 and another master’s degree in 1960. For the next 10 years, he managed additional nuclear-reactor projects for the General Atomic Company in San Diego.

For much of the 1970s, Wilkins served as a Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematics and Physics at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He took a sabbatical leave in 1976 to become a visiting scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. From there he became a vice president at EG and G Idaho Inc., in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Wilkins returned to Argonne as a Distinguished Fellow in 1984.

He retired in 1985, but continued to work as a technical consultant and adviser to a variety of organizations. Wilkins returned to academia in 1990 when he became a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, retiring again in 2003.

J. Ernest Wilkins Jr.
Portrait and plaque honoring J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. in the Eckhart Hall Tea Room at the University of Chicago.
(Photos by Dan Dry)

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Last modified at 11:09 AM CST on Monday, July 23, 2007

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