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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Ernest Wilkins, black scientist in the Manhattan Project

Jesse Ernest Wilkins, Jr. earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics, master's degree in mathematics, a and doctoral degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago. Then he turned 20. The newspapers of the day called him "the Negro genius," which apparently was not enough even in some academic circles. He could work with Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner on a theory to use for the determination of thermal group constants in water-moderated reactor systems (a pretty convenient thing to know when you are trying to build the world's first atomic bomb) but he could not use the same bathroom.

However, Wilkins would persevere and prevail despite the repeated racist obstacles thrown in his path.

Born in Chicago on November 27, 1923, Wilkins became the youngest student ever at the University of Chicago at age 13. His father was a well-known lawyer who held a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Illinois and a law degree from the University of Chicago. His father served as the  president of the Cook County Bar Association in Chicago in 1941. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him assistant Secretary of Labor in 1954, the first black American to hold a sub-cabinet position.

The son would follow a different path that led to higher places. After earning his doctorate in 1942, he headed south to Tuskegee, where he taught math for a year before returning to the University of Chicago to work in its metallurgical lab as part of the Manhattan Project under the direction of Arthur Holly Compton and Enrico Fermi. He also worked with Wigner on their theory, which they published in 1944; it was declassified in 1948.

Wilkins was not the only black scientist working on the Manhattan Project. Lloyd Albert Quarterman, a chemist with expertise in fluorine, was vital to the project. He worked closely with both Fermi and Einstein on the project. Quarterman's official title was an assistant to an associate research scientist and chemist, as he had only a bachelor's degree. However, the work that he did was vital to the isolation of the Uranium 238 that made the bomb.

The team that included Wilkins was headed to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to apply his theories to the harvesting of atomic material for the bomb that would devastate Hiroshima (the Nagasaki bomb came out of Hansford, Washington) but rather than challenge Jim Crow segregation laws, Edwin Teller gave Wilkins another assignment, stating in a letter on September 18, 1944 to Harold Urey, director of war research at Columbia: "Knowing that men of high qualifications are scarce these days, I thought that it might be useful that I suggest a capable person for this job. Mr. Wilkins in Wigner's group at the Metallurgical Laboratory has been doing, according to Wigner, excellent work. He is a colored man and since Wigner's group is moving to X it is not possible for him to continue work with that group. I think that it might be a good idea to secure his services for our work."

This was a time when major league baseball would rather have Pete Gray, a one-armed white player, play than allow any of the Hall of Famers in the Negro Leagues play in the big leagues. This is no knock on Gray, whose success inspired other handicapped people, but he hit only .218 in his one season in 1945.

However, in 1947, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. Times at last were changing. Wilkins would be part of that change. He continued to work with Wigner on mathematical theories, and Wilkins later designed and developed nuclear reactors, becoming part owner of one.

After the war, Wilkins was a mathematician at the American Optical Company in Buffalo, New York, working on the construction of high-powered telescopes from 1946 until 1950, when he joined the United Nuclear Corporation of America in White Plains, New York. The company designed nuclear power generation for ships and submarines. He became the manager of its Mathematics and Physics department there in 1955, and then later manager of Research and Development. He continued his education, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from New York University in 1957 and 1960, respectively. In 1960, he headed west to San Diego, where he became the director of the General Atomic Company, which designed nuclear power reactors.

Ten years later, at 46, he returned to teaching in 1970, inaugurating the doctoral program in mathematics at Howard University. It was the first black college to offer one -- more than a century after slavery ended. In 1976, he rook a sabbatical to serve as the senior physicist at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, again working on nuclear power design. The next year he began seven years of work as senior director at Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Idaho Falls, Idaho, working on  nuclear power plant design, before returning in 1984 to Argonne as a visiting scientist, fellow, and consultant. In 1990, Clark Atlanta University brought him in as a distinguished professor of applied mathematics and mathematical physics, capping a remarkably long and productive career that had seen the rise and development of nuclear power -- and the end to racial segregation.

Ernest Wilkins was a "Negro genius" as a boy in Chicago. He died just a genius on May 1, 2011, in Fountain Hills, Arizona.

NOTE: The first volume of Exceptional Americans, published by Amazon's Create Space, is now available.


  1. SNL Cold Open - Mayweather vs. Pacquiao

  2. How do you find such amazing Americans, Don?

    1. You ever shoot fish in a barrel.As Donald Rumsfeld said, target rich environment. Never appreciated just how wonderfully accomplished our people are until I began doing this series

  3. Interesting question, Sam, but I worry about the golden egg goose so have not asked.

    Most of the people are people I should have known about, but most I died not.

    It would seem that as much as I have read about the Manhattan Project (with a Feynman focus) it seems like I would have stumbled, surely, across Dr. Wilkins' name.

  4. Why do I never see the typos until it is too late?

    ....but most I did not.