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Obituary of J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. (1923-2011)

18 January 2013

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., a mathematician, engineer, and scientific manager, died on 1 May 2011 in Fountain Hills, Arizona at the age of 88. His career spanned seven decades and included significant and fundamental contributions to pure and applied mathematics, civil and nuclear engineering, optics, and both pure and applied mathematics.

Wilkins was born in Chicago, Illinois on November 27, 1923 to J. Ernest Wilkins, a prominent lawyer, and Lucile Beatrice Robinson. Both parents were graduates of the University of Chicago, and as a consequence, there was little surprise when he entered this university at the age of thirteen, the youngest student ever admitted by that institution. Remarkably, within five years, he received three degrees in mathematics (the BA in 1940, an MS in 1941, and the PhD in 1942).

Wilkins' subsequent careers included work with Eugene Wigner, who directed the Theoretical Physics Group at the University of Chicago as part of the Manhattan Project. During this period, he made several important contributions which, as summarized in his Manhattan District reports, are now referred to as the 'Wilkins effect,' and the 'Wigner-Wilkins' and 'Wilkins spectra' for thermal neutrons. Wilkins also had a long and distinguished career in nuclear physics including as president of the American Nuclear Society from 1974 to 1975.

In addition to research in the areas of theoretical reactor physics and issues related to shielding, Wilkins applied his mathematical training to analyze the transport of gamma rays (done with H. Goldstein), improving the resolving power of optical systems, and the providing of both policy and technical advice on projects at the General Atomic Company in San Diego California. These projects involved the design of high temperature gas-cooled nuclear reactors and plasma physics as it related to fusion reactions. He also made contributions to Project ORION, a program exploring the application of nuclear bombs to propel rockets.

Wilkins had an active career as a mathematician. In particular, during the decade of the 1970s, he wrote five fundamental papers on the mean number of real zeroes for random Legendre and trigonometric polynomials. Most of this work was carried out in conjunction with graduate students at Howard University (Washington, D.C.), where he was Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematics and Physics (1970 - 1978) and at Clark Atlanta University (Atlanta, Georgia), where he served as Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Mathematical Physics (1990 - 2003). A total of eighteen MS theses and four PhD dissertations were received by his graduate students at these two institutions.

Over his varied careers, Wilkins received many honors and awards for his contributions to science, engineering, and mathematics. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1940 and Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society in 1942, both while at the University of Chicago. He held fellowships in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Nuclear Society (1964). In 1976, he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering for his many efforts to the 'Peaceful application of atomic energy through contributions to the design and development of nuclear reactors.' In March 2007, the University of Chicago and its Department of Mathematics honored Wilkins in a special ceremony that included the dedication of his portrait and a plaque, which was placed in the Eckhart Hall Tea Room of the Physical Sciences Division. In this regard, it should also be mentioned that while at the University of Chicago, Wilkins was university table tennis champion for three years and in 1938 won the boys' state championship. In 1980, he was awarded the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal by the United States Army.

With regard to his family, Wilkins was born into a distinguished African American Methodist family. His mother held the MS degree and his father was a lawyer who became President of the Cook County Bar Association in the 1940s and later served as Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Eisenhower administration. An interesting, funny, but serious read on the extended Wilkins family is the recent book by his niece, Carolyn Marie Wilkins, a professor at the Berklee College of Music, Boston Massachusetts. The book is Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success (University of Missouri Press, 2010).

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. married three times. First, in 1947 to Gloria Louise Stewart, next to Maxine G. Malone in 1984, and finally in 2003 to Vera Wood Anderson. Only the first marriage produced children, a daughter, Sharon, and a son, Wilkins, III.

J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. was a quiet, kind, gracious, sophisticated, and complex person who mentored many students and colleagues, and was 'worshipped' by several generations of friends and young students seeking careers in mathematics, engineering, and the physical sciences. We will miss his physical presence, but always retain many happy memories of him.

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