Celebrating Black History Month
08 February 2023
Since 1976, each U.S. president has officially designated February as Black History Month. During this time, we honor the triumphs and struggles of the Black and African American communities, celebrating the achievements by Black Americans and recognizing their central role in U.S. history.
This month, UUSA would like to recognize a few of the many Black scientists, physicists, engineers and technicians who contributed to the success of one of the most significant nuclear projects of the twentieth century: the Manhattan Project.
Ernest Wilkins Jr. (1923 – 2011)
This mathematician and physicist researched methods for producing fissionable nuclear materials, focusing on plutonium-239, during the Manhattan Project. He is known for his collaborative research on the Wigner-Wilkins approach for estimating the distribution of neutron energies within nuclear reactors. During his lifetime, Wilkins held a variety of positions at the Nuclear Development Corporation of America (later the United Nuclear Corporation). He also oversaw a range of research and development projects with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), served as the president of the American Nuclear Society, and became the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
George Warren Reed (1920 – 2015)
This chemist researched radiation patterns of uranium and plutonium during the Manhattan Project. His research focused on the fission yields of uranium and thorium to determine their viability for a nuclear chain reaction, work that had an immediate impact on the construction of the atomic bomb. After the end of the Manhattan Project, he stayed on to work in the chemistry division of the Argonne National Laboratory, where he continued to research radiation patterns of uranium and plutonium. Later, he on the lunar sample planning team with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where he used a nuclear reactor to determine that the lunar rock brought back from recent NASA missions contained minerals not found on Earth. Over the course of his career, he published over 120 scientific papers. He was also a recipient of NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal.
Carolyn B. Parker (1917 – 1966)
This research physicist was recruited to the Manhattan Project for her superb mathematical and scientific skills when she was only in her twenties. Her research focused on separating and purifying polonium, the element that was used as the initiator for the fission chain reaction in the atomic bomb and early atomic weapons. The work of Parker and her team contributed to the development of the initiator used in the Trinity Test in New Mexico in July 1945, and in the Fat Man device that was dropped on Nagasaki later in 1945. Later, Parker earned a second Master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) physics graduate program. She is considered the first African American woman to earn a postgraduate degree in physics, as well as the first African American to earn a postgraduate degree in physics at MIT. During her Ph.D. studies she was employed by the Air Force Cambridge Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a leading research laboratory. However, despite finishing the coursework for her Ph.D. in physics, leukemia prevented her from completing her doctoral program. In 2008, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health determined that leukemia was an occupational risk of working with polonium, the likely cause of Parker’s illness.
Without the groundbreaking contributions of Wilkins, Reed, and Parker, the Manhattan Project would not have achieved success in the timeframe necessary to secure the end of World War II, and without the continued scientific achievements of these individuals, modern nuclear science would not look the same.