Updated: Feb 9, 2022
"A Negro Genius" - The National Press
About J. Ernest Wilkins Jr.
J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. was a prominent African American mathematician and physicist who worked at the University of Chicago Met Lab during the Manhattan Project.
Wilkins entered the University of Chicago in 1936 at the age of 13, becoming one of the youngest students to ever attend the university. After completing his Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at 17, he continued his academic studies, receiving a Master’s degree the next year. In 1942, at the age of 19, Wilkins became the seventh African American to obtain a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the university.
After graduation, Wilkins taught mathematics at the Tuskegee Institute before joining the University of Chicago Met Lab in 1944. Working in collaboration with Arthur Compton and Enrico Fermi, Wilkins researched methods for producing fissionable nuclear materials, focusing in particular on plutonium-239. He did not learn the purpose of his research until the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
In the fall of 1944, Wilkins's team was scheduled to be transferred to Oak Ridge, but Jim Crow laws prevented him from taking up a scientific post there. Instead, Edward Teller recommended him for a position with Eugene Wigner who at the time was r