Physicist Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. He can be credited with saving the lives of millions of U.S. servicemen because use of the bomb made it unnecessary to invade Japan to bring World War II to an end. In 1946, he received a Presidential Citation and a Medal of Merit.
In 1954, during the McCarthy Era hysteria when many innocent people were accused of being communists, he was stripped of his security clearance by the Atomic Energy Commission, even though he was never shown to be a communist or to have done anything to harm his country. Oppenheimer opposed building the more powerful hydrogen bomb, which infuriated his enemy, Edward Teller, who eventually directed that project. The Commission found Oppenheimer to be loyal to the United States but decided that he could not be trusted with atomic secrets. Nine years later, in 1963, the same Atomic Energy Commission awarded him the $50,000 Fermi Prize for "his outstanding contributions to theoretical physics and his scientific and administrative leadership."
His life was marked by emotional problems, with incidents of strange behavior, troubled relationships with married women, and having several close friends and relatives commit suicide. In 1967 at age 62, he died of throat cancer that could have been caused by exposure to radioactive materials, his extreme emotional dependence on chain-smoking cigarettes and pipes, and by the HPV virus that could have been acquired during his multiple affairs.
Academic Brilliance Oppenheimer's father was a prosperous textile importer who came from Germany to New York. His mother was a Baltimore artist who died when he was 10. Robert was always shy and brilliant and preferred to study rather than mingle with classmates in both high school and college. In 1921 he was valedictorian at his high school, the Ethical Culture School of New York. He went directly from high school to taking advanced graduate courses in physics at Harvard, where he was graduated in just three years, summa cum Laude in physics.
From Harvard he went to Cambridge University in England, where he worked in atomic physics with Lord Rutherford; then on to Georg-August-Universitat in Gottingen, Germany, to work on the quantum theory of atomic structure under Max Born. He received his PhD there at age 22. He published many important papers on quantum theory, including the ground-breaking "Born-Oppenheimer approximation", which separates nuclear motion from electronic motion in the mathematical treatment of molecules. In 1927, he returned to Harvard to study mathematical physics, and in 1928, at age 24, became assistant professor in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He spent the next 13 years as professor there and at the California Institute of Technology. He also spoke eight languages fluently and was an expert in baroque and classical music
Head of the Atomic Bomb Project In 1941, Nobel prize winner Arthur H. Compton recruited Oppenheimer into the two-billion-dollar atomic project. Oppenheimer convinced Dr. Compton and the military that the only way to do this was to bring the world's best scientists to live and work together in one community, so he was appointed director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He was incredibly efficient. He traveled all over the country and persuaded more than 4000 brilliant scientists to join the project, including Dr. Enrico Fermi and Dr. Niels Bohr, two of the greatest physicists in the world. In two years, Oppenheimer coordinated the work to make and explode the atomic bomb. He worked day and night. He often smoked instead of eating and his weight dropped to 115 pounds (he was six feet tall).
After the Explosion of the First Atomic Bomb From 1945 to 1952, he headed the Atomic Energy Commission's General Advisory Committee of top nuclear scientists on atomic bomb policy. He helped write a plan for international control of atomic energy and was consultant to Bernard M. Baruch at the United Nations and to Frederick H. Osborn, his successor, in the failed United Nations negotiations over the future of control of the atomic bomb. He even had a desk in the President's Executive Offices, across the street from the White House.
In 1954, he was disgraced during hearings before the Atomic Energy Commission and stripped of his security clearance because of his past associations with known communists. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited him to a White House dinner of Nobel Prize winners, and in 1963, President Johnson presented him with the highest honor of the Atomic Energy Commission, the $50,000 Fermi Award.
Many Troubled Relationships In 1936, at age 32, he had an affair with a medical student named Jean Talock. Three times, he asked her to marry him and three times she refused. She eventually became a board-certified psychiatrist. In 1943, while married to his wife, Katherine, Oppenheimer took a trip from Los Alamos to California and spent the night with Taylock in her apartment. Outside her apartment, a government agent monitored details of their affair through the night. In January 1944, Talock committed suicide.
While at Caltech, Oppenheimer worked with Linus Pauling to explain how chemicals bind together. One day when Pauling was teaching a class at the university, Oppenheimer came to Pauling's home and asked Pauling's wife, Ava, to join him for romance in New Mexico. She refused and told her husband about Oppenheimer’s advances, and that was the end of the collaboration between two of the world’s greatest scientists. At the start of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer asked Pauling to head the chemistry division and he refused.
In 1939, Oppenheimer met Katherine Puening, a biologist and communist who was married to Joseph Dallet, a fellow teacher at Cal Berkeley who died fighting for the communists during the Spanish Civil War. During a break, Katherine and Oppenheimer snuck away from her husband to spend two months together in his mountain cabin in New Mexico. In 1940, shortly after learning she was pregnant with Oppenheimer's child, Kitty divorced her husband and married Oppenheimer the next day. When his son Peter was born, Oppenheimer nicknamed him "Pronto". In 1944, they had a second child, Toni. Soon after giving birth, Oppenheimer and his wife left the newborn with a friend, Patricia Sherr. Oppenheimer was so busy that he rarely came to visit his daughter and during one of his visits he asked Sherr, "Would you like to adopt Toni?" In 1954, the children went to live with Dr Louis and Eleanor Hempleman in Rochester, New York while Oppenheimer went through the Atomic Energy Commission hearings and lost his security clearance. His wife did not visit or call the children and spent her time drinking whiskey. In 1977, when she was 33, his daughter committed suicide.
In the late 1930s, Oppenheimer was a close friend of fellow physics professor Richard Tolman and his wife, Ruth. During the war, and while still married to Katherine, Oppenheimer had a long-term affair with Ruth which was documented in their many available and very explicit love letters. Her husband was devastated as he still loved his wife.
Two of Oppenheimer's closest friends for many years were Robert Serber and his wife, Charlotte. Oppenheimer appointed her head of the technical library at Los Alamos, where she was the only wartime female section leader. She was falsely accused of being a communist because some members of her family were prominent socialist intellectuals. This drove her to commit suicide. Robert Serber, like Oppenheimer, was falsely accused of being a communist. He was not a communist and was accused primarily because he was married to Charlotte. After Oppenheimer died in 1967, Oppenheimer's wife, Katherine, moved in to live with Robert Serber.
Throat Cancer Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1965. He was treated unsuccessfully with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy and died in February 1967. Doctors do not know what causes throat cancer, but in Oppenheimer's case, exposure to radioactive materials may have been a major factor. Throat cancer is also associated with: • smoking and chewing tobacco • excessive alcohol use • a group of viruses called human papillomavirus (HPV) • diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
I have never seen Oppenheimer's medical record, but many reports show that he was an extreme chain smoker and used a pipe when he was not using cigarettes. His co-workers said that he would often smoke instead of eat. He also had sexual contacts with many different women. Each contact with a different person is another chance to acquire any of the more than 100 different types of HPV.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904 – February 18, 1967)
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