February 15, 2019
The National Society of Black Physicists honors Dr. Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. Dr. Wilkins was an African American nuclear scientist, mechanical engineer and mathematician. As part of a widely varied and notable career, Wilkins contributed to the Manhattan Project during the Second World War.
Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. (November 27, 1923 – May 12, 2011) was an African American nuclear scientist, mechanical engineer and mathematician. He attended the University of Chicago at the age of 13, becoming its youngest ever student. His intelligence led to him being referred to as a "negro genius" in the media.
As part of a widely varied and notable career, Wilkins contributed to the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. He also gained fame working in and conducting nuclear physics research in both academia and industry. He wrote numerous scientific papers, served in various important posts, earned several significant awards and helped recruit minority students into the sciences. His career spanned seven decades and included significant contributions to pure and applied mathematics, civil and nuclear engineering, and optics.
In 1944 he returned to the University of Chicago where he served first as an associate mathematical physicist and then as a physicist in its Metallurgical Laboratory, as part of the Manhattan Project. Working under the direction of Arthur Holly Compton and Enrico Fermi, Wilkins researched the extraction of fissionable nuclear materials, but was not told of the research group's ultimate goal until after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Wilkins was the codiscoverer or discoverer of a number of phenomena in physics such as the Wilkins effect and the Wigner–Wilkins and Wilkins spectra.
When Wilkins's team was about to be transferred to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (known at the time as site "X"), due to the Jim Crow laws of the Southern United States, Wilkins would have been prevented from working there. When Edward Teller was informed about this, he wrote a letter on September 18, 1944 to Harold Urey (who was the director of war research at Columbia at the time) of Wilkins's abilities, informing him about the problem of Wilkins's race, and recommending his services for a new position. As Teller explained:
“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.”
Wilkins then continued to teach mathematics and conduct significant research in neutron absorption with physicist Eugene Wigner, including the development of its mathematical models. He would also later help design and develop nuclear reactors for electrical power generation, becoming part owner of one such company.
Despite his stature and fame during his various careers he was not unaffected by the prevalent racism that existed for much of his life.