The Wilkins effect

Room 209, aka the Tea Room, in Eckhart Hall has seen its share of mathematics department gatherings, all presided over by a portrait of the department's founding chair, Eliakim Hastings Moore. Now afternoon tea will be consumed and theorems discussed under the equally watchful eye of J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., SB’40, SM’41, PhD’42. Wilkins entered the College in 1936 at age 13 and six years later became the seventh African American to earn a PhD in mathematics from Chicago—and quite possibly Chicago's youngest-ever PhD recipient.

Welcoming Wilkins and other guests to a Friday afternoon unveiling of a Tea Room portrait honoring his accomplishments, Physical Sciences Dean Robert A. Fefferman noted the exceptional nature of the occasion and the honoree: "Dr. Wilkins stands out among our alumni."

During his 61-year career, the South Side native worked on the Manhattan Project (where his contributions to nuclear-reactor physics included a discovery known as the Wilkins effect), designed microscopic and ophthalmologic lenses, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and became the second African American named to the National Academy of Engineering.

Walter E. Massey, president of Morehouse College and former U of C vice president for research and director of the Argonne National Laboratory, saw a significance in the portrait that went beyond honoring Wilkins: "Students will see it and ask, Who was that? What's the story behind that? And to have a way of telling that story is a great thing."


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Photos (left to right): Ernest J. Wilkins Jr. and his wife Vera view his portrait in Eckhart Hall; Morehouse College president Walter E. Massey spoke at the ceremony; Sharon Wilkins Hill told of a math-filled childhood—from counting games to counting poker cards.

Photos by Dan Dry.

March 2, 2007