J Ernest Wilkins Jr was born into an African-American Methodist family, being the son of J Ernest Wilkins Sr and Lucile Beatrice Robinson. His father J Ernest Wilkins Sr was a lawyer who went on to become President of the Cook County Bar Association in the early 1940s (Cook County is in northeastern Illinois and Chicago is in that County), and Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Eisenhower administration of the 1950s. His mother Lucile Robinson had been educated to the level of a Master's Degree and was trained as a schoolteacher. In  the strong influence of his parents is described:-
Responding to the influence, nurture and guidance of his parents, and developing his talents, he achieved much.
Ernest entered the University of Chicago in 1936 when only 13 years old and in so doing he became the youngest ever student at that university. His university career was remarkable and he received much publicity when he graduated with his A.B. in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1940 at the age of only 17 years. He then continued to study mathematics at Chicago for his Master's Degree and in the following year he was awarded an M.S. He then continued with his doctoral studies at Chicago and submitted his dissertation Multiple Integral Problems in Parametric Form in the Calculus of Variations which led to his being awarded a Ph.D. in December 1942, only a few days after his 19th birthday.
Few teenagers can have won a scholarship and studied at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton but this is exactly what Wilkins did in 1942 with a Rosenwald Scholarship. He wrote his first papers in 1942, both on geometry, and they were published in 1943. They are The first canonical pencil and A special class of surfaces in projective differential geometry both published in Duke Mathematical Journal. In the first he gives certain geometric definitions for lines of the first canonical pencil through a point of a nonruled surface. In the second he considers a certain class of surfaces and expresses characteristic properties of these surfaces in terms of standard projective elements.
In 1943-44 Wilkins taught at the Tuskegee Institute, where most of the students were black. This was the first year that this Institute offered graduate-level instruction (it is now called Tuskegee University). He then returned to the University of Chicago where he worked on the Manhattan Project in the Metallurgical Laboratory from 1944 to 1946. The only method for the production of the fissionable material plutonium 239, required for making a nuclear bomb, was being developed in this Laboratory under the direction of Arthur Holly Compton and Enrico Fermi.
Wilkins continued to produce a remarkable number of mathematical papers on a wide variety of different topics. In 1944 four of his papers appeared: On the growth of solutions of linear differential equations; Definitely self-conjugate adjoint integral equations; Multiple integral problems in parametric form in the calculus of variations; and A note on skewness and kurtosis. The last of these is on statistics. In the following year he published The differential difference equation for epidemics in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics.
After leaving the Manhattan Project in 1946, Wilkins worked in industry. He was a mathematician at the American Optical Company in Buffalo, New York from 1946 to 1950. During this time he married Gloria Stewart in 1947 they had two children, Sharon and J. Ernest III. From 1950 he worked as a mathematician at the United Nuclear Corporation of America in White Plains, New York for ten years. He became Manager of the Mathematics and Physics department there in 1955, and then later Manager of Research and Development. It was during this time that Wilkins earned himself further degrees when he was awarded a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering from New York University in 1957, and a Master of Mechanical Engineering three years later.
After this Wilkins held a number of academic and non-academic appointments. He worked at the General Atomic Company in San Diego in the 1960s and in the 1970s he was appointed to Howard University as Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematical Physics. He established a Ph.D. programme in mathematics at Howard University and in doinf so it became the first traditional Black University to have such a programme.
From 1977 to 1984 Wilkins worked at EG&G Idaho, becoming Vice President and Deputy General Manager for Science and Engineering. Then from 1984 he spent the last year before he officially retired as a Fellow at the Argonne National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy in Argonne, Illinois which carries out basic research and development of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. He remained a consultant at the Argonne National Laboratory after he retired in 1985. He became Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University in 1990.
We have looked above at some of the pure mathematical topics which Wilkins looked at early in his career. He has continued to produce mathematics papers and he has over 50 papers on mathematics and its applications. He also wrote papers on nuclear engineering and optics. His work on the penetration of gamma rays published in 1953 in the Physical Review is used in the design of nuclear reactors and radiation shields:-
He developed mathematical models by which the amount of gamma radiation absorbed by a given material can be calculated. This technique of calculating radiative absorption is widely used among researchers in space and nuclear science projects.
Other work which he has done has been related to heat transfer and in January 1992 he was invited to give a joint American Mathematical Society - Mathematical Association of America lecture in Baltimore, Maryland. The American Mathematical Society has published a videocassette of this lecture and an interview. Here is an extract from the description:-
Wilkins has worked on a variety of mathematical problems throughout his distinguished career. A member of the National Academy of Engineering who received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago at the age of nineteen, Wilkins has worked in academia, industry, and government. ... In the interview, Wilkins describes some of the mathematical problems he has worked on and discusses some of the difficulties in trying to improve the participation of members of underrepresented groups in science and mathematics. His lecture explores a fascinating problem about heat transfer that arises in a variety of settings. With any heat engine, it is necessary to expel heat to the surroundings. One way to do this is to attach 'fins' to the outer wall of the engine. The shape of the fins has a large impact on how efficiently they are able to expel heat. Wilkins examines the mathematical aspects of determining the optimal shape of such fins.
Wilkins has received a large number of honours for his work. He was elected to: the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1956); a Fellowship of the American Nuclear Society (1964); the National Academy of Engineering (1976); and Honorary membership of the National Association of Mathematicians (1994). He served as President of the American Nuclear Society in 1974-75 and on the Council of the American Mathematical Society from 1975 to 77.
He was awarded the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal by the U.S. Army in 1980.
Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson