One of the most anticipated film releases this year, the epic thriller Oppenheimer is set to be released in theaters across the world in a few days.
The film tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer — the scientist known as the “father of the atomic bomb” — and his work on the Manhattan Project.
Our Research team dove into the records on MyHeritage to see what we could find about the man who held the fate of the world on his shoulders as he brought about the conclusion of World War II — and grappled with his conscious as his achievement spiraled into a deadly nuclear arms race.
Oppenheimer’s early travels
Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York in 1904. The son of a German Jewish immigrant who made his fortune importing textiles, he traveled several times to Europe during his childhood. A gifted and precocious student, he finished high school at the age of 17 in 1921, and the following summer, with his parents, Julius and Ella and his young brother Frank, he traveled to Europe for a 3-month vacation.
His passport application, processed prior to this trip, tells us that his father Julius was born in Hanau, Germany and emigrated from the port of Bremen in 1888. It also mentions that the family was living at 155 Riverside Drive, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and that J. Robert was 5’11” tall, and had blue eyes and dark brown hair.
Below is a Deep Nostalgia animation of his passport photo:
Returning very ill after this vacation in Europe, he had to postpone his studies in chemistry at Harvard for a year — but he wasted no time, graduating in just 3 years instead of 4. In 1925, he began studying physics abroad, first at Cambridge in England, then in Germany where he received his doctorate in May 1927 at the University of Gottingen. He was only 23 years old.
The Manhattan Project
He returned to the United States in July 1927 to teach physics at the University of California and the California Institute of Technology. We found record of his return in the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists, 1820–1957 collection:
He was an established professor at Berkeley when he joined the Manhattan Project in 1942 to research and develop the first nuclear weapons. The 1940 U.S. Census finds him living in Berkeley and working as a university professor.
Oppenheimer led the famous secret laboratory of Los Alamos, New Mexico, established in 1943 to coordinate the research of the Manhattan Project. The research carried out led to the test of Trinity, July 16, 1945, which was the first atomic test, followed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, on August 6 and 9, 1945.
The security scandal
After the war, in 1947, he moved back to the East Coast to become the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. We found him listed in the 1950 U.S. Census living in Princeton with his wife Katharine and their children, Peter and Katharine. He is listed as the Director for Advanced Study, and he declared that he worked 50 hours the previous week.
Oppenheimer’s role in developing the devastating nuclear weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki weighed heavily on his conscience. He became an advocate for international control of atomic weapons and was a key figure in the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission. Despite his efforts to promote nuclear disarmament, he faced scrutiny during the McCarthy era for alleged communist ties. He was subjected to a security investigation, and his hearing took place in April-May 1954, preventing him from attending the Solvay conference in Brussels. He was cleared of the charge of treason, but he was declared no longer fit to serve the U.S. and lost his security clearance.
We found a record of Oppenheimer in our Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Immigration Cards, 1900–1965 collection shortly before the scandal. It’s unclear whether he applied for the card as part of his plan to attend the Solvay conference and didn’t get to go, or if he took a separate trip that passed through Brazil.
Here is a Deep Nostalgia animation of his immigration card photo:
Oppenheimer continued working as the Director of the Institute of Advanced Study until he resigned, for health reasons, in 1966. He died of cancer a few months later, leaving behind him a legacy encompassing both scientific brilliance and a struggle with moral dilemmas — encouraging all human beings to look deeper into the relationship between scientific progress, ethics, and the consequences of harnessing immense power.
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Source: My Heritage