Black History: Special Delivery!!
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Jesse Ernest Wilkins, Jr. (1923-2011) was a renowned African American mathematician and physicist. He worked at the University of Chicago on the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was a scientific research and development initiative to support nuclear weapons production. It was a partnership between the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In solidarity with 70 other Manhattan Project scientists, Wilkins signed Leo Szilard’s petition to President Truman. This petition sought to alert President Truman and the U.S. government of the harm that could be done by deploying the atomic bomb. However, the President nor the Secretary of War received the petition before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Wilkins, along with many other scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, was interested in how the use of atomic energy might be applied peacefully.
A brilliant student, Wilkins entered the University of Chicago in 1936 at the age of 13, making him one of the youngest students ever to attend the University. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at age 17 and received a master’s degree one year later at the age of 19. Upon completion of his Ph.D. He was referred to by the press as a “negro genius”. Wilkins was born in Chicago on November 27, 1923. His mother was an educator in the Chicago Public Schools. His father was a prominent attorney and also served as Assistant Secretary of Labor during the Eisenhower Administration.
After completing his Ph.D. Wilkins taught Mathematics at Tuskegee Institute. He was then recruited to work at Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, becoming a scientific contributor to the Manhatten Project from 1944-1946. There he worked with Arthur Compton and Enrico Fermi to research methods for the production of fissionable nuclear materials, focusing on the production of plutonium-239. At the time, Wilkins was not aware that the purpose of his research was to support the production of the atomic bomb, which was dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
After working on the Manhattan Project, Wilkins worked in private industry. He also earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1957 and 1960. Wilkins was appointed as the Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematical Physics at Howard University. He also launched Howard’s Ph.D. program in mathematics. Wilkins then retired in 1985. However, his retirement lasted only five years. He was then named as the Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University. He held this position until his death.
A member of numerous professional societies, he received many honors throughout his career. He also published many mathematics, optics, and nuclear engineering papers. Wilkins was a member of Sigma Pi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternities. He died on May 1, 2011, at the age of 87.
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