Jesse Ernest Wilkins, Jr. (November 27, 1923 – May 1, 2011) was an African American nuclear scientist, engineer, mathematician, who gained first fame on entering the University of Chicago at age 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.During his studies and various careers he was affected by the prevalent racism that existed for much of his life.
In 1940 Wilkins completed his B.Sc. in mathematics at age 17, then his M.Sc. at age 18, and finally went on to complete a Ph.D in mathematics at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1942 at age 19. In order to improve his rapport with the nuclear engineers reporting to him, Wilkins later received both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from New York University in 1957 and 1960 thus earning five science degrees during his life.