In Memoriam

J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. (1923-2011)

J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., a prominent African-American scientist and educator, died earlier this month of respiratory failure at his home in Arizona. He was 87 years old.

Wilkins was the son of the former assistant secretary of labor in the Eisenhower administration, the first African American to ever attend a meeting of the president’s cabinet.

The younger Wilkins began school at age 4 and entered high school at age 10. He graduated as valedictorian of his high school class and entered the University of Chicago at age 13. He was the youngest student on campus. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. At 17, he earned a master’s degree. By age 19 he had obtained a Ph.D. in mathematics. During his college years, Wilkins was also the state ping-pong champion.

During World War II, Dr. Wilkins worked on the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb. While no leading university would hire him as a faculty member because of his race, Wilkins worked for several large corporations. Later, he taught mathematics at Howard University and Clark Atlanta University. He also went back to school and earned bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering at New York University.