University of Chicago Honors One of Its Most Distinguished African-American Graduates

A portrait and a plaque honoring J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. were unveiled earlier this month in the Eckhart Hall Tea Room on the campus of the University of Chicago.

Wilkins was the son of J. Ernest Wilkins Sr., who served as assistant secretary of labor during the Eisenhower administration. At the age of 13, the young Wilkins Jr. enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1936. He received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at age 17, his master’s at age 18, and his Ph.D. at age 19.

After doing postgraduate work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Wilkins joined the faculty of the Tuskegee Institute. During World War II he worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.

After the war Wilkins continued to conduct nuclear research for the Atomic Energy Commission. He earned a second bachelor’s degree and a second master’s degree in mechanical engineering at New York University.

Later in his career Wilkins served on the faculty at Howard University and Clark University. Wilkins retired from teaching in 2003 and is now 83 years old.