by George Zamora
SOCORRO – A retired New Mexico Tech physics professor who was “in the delivery room” when the nuclear age was born has donated the bulk of his memoirs, papers, historic artifacts, and personal library to the university’s Joseph R. Skeen Library.
Marvin H. Wilkening, professor emeritus of physics and dean emeritus of graduate studies at New Mexico Tech, was still a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology when he joined a group of 41 other scientists on December 2, 1942, in achieving the first sustained nuclear chain reaction under the bleachers of the old football stadium at the University of Chicago.
Wilkening’s participation in this historic event would not be the highlight of his research career, however, since a few years later he would also play a supporting role in the Manhattan Project and would become an eyewitness to the first atomic explosion at Trinity Site.
Through the recent donation, Skeen Library patrons will now be able to draw on some of Wilkening’s first-hand accounts of events that shaped the nuclear age, as they peruse various scrapbooks, photo albums, films, and research papers.
A full two shelves of the Wilkening Collection, as the donated materials are being called, will be dedicated to books about the Manhattan Project and the atom bomb.
“We are very excited to receive this unique and interesting collection,” says Joan Shedivy, Information Literacy Librarian at the Skeen Library. “The donated items which make up the Wilkening Collection are among some of the most meticulously arranged materials I’ve ever seen–even the file cabinets are extremely well organized.”
Books in the Wilkening Collection will soon be available for check out at the Skeen Library, Shedivy says, while archival-type materials are currently being catalogued and should be available for viewing within a year.
Wilkening first joined the New Mexico Tech faculty in 1948 and retired from his various teaching, research, and administrative positions at the university in 1984.
An internationally recognized authority on radon gas, having authored more than 35 published papers and books on the naturally occurring radioactive gas, Wilkening is also credited with establishing New Mexico Tech’s first radon research laboratory during his tenure at the school.
The Skeen Library’s procurement of the Wilkening Collection was made possible through the concerted efforts of Marvin Wilkening’s daughter, Dr. Laurel Wilkening, and son, Dr. Wes Wilkening.