He’s regarded as the “father of the atomic bomb” after the first nuclear weapon was tested successfully on July 16, 1945, and how J. Robert Oppenheimer died 22 years later cut short the life of a pioneering scientist.
Born on April 22, 1904, in New York City, Oppenheimer’s journey began with an insatiable curiosity. As a young prodigy, he was drawn to the wonders of physics and mathematics, displaying a profound intellect that set him apart from his peers. During World War II, his brilliance shone brightest when he was tasked with leading the top-secret Manhattan Project, aimed at developing the first atomic bomb that, if successful, would change the course of the war.
This time of his life is depicted in Christopher Nolan’s epic film Oppenheimer, based on the 2008 biography American Prometheus. The film was released on July 21, 2023, starring Irish actor Cillian Murphy in the role of this innovative genius. “He was dancing between the raindrops morally. He was complex, contradictory, polymathic; incredibly attractive intellectually and charismatic, but ultimately unknowable,” Murphy told The Guardian of his character. “There are incidents in his early life that were quite worrying; very erratic.” He was diagnosed with “dementia praecox”, a term describing symptoms associated with schizophrenia. Eventually, he would pass away at the age of 62. Here’s how Robert Oppenheimer died and his legacy in the modern era.
How did Robert Oppenheimer die?
Robert Oppenheimer died in 1967, two years after being diagnosed with throat cancer. As a chain smoker, Oppenheimer underwent unsuccessful radiation treatment and chemotherapy late in 1966. He fell into a coma on February 15, 1967, and died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on February 18, aged 62.
War had been raging in Europe since 1939, as the Nazi invasion led by Adolph Hitler seeped from Germany to its neighboring countries. In 1940, Japan, a dominant force in the Pacific, signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. This pact formalized the alliance between the three countries, which were subsequently referred to as the Axis powers. In the Pact, Japan recognized “the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe.” In 1941, Japan attacked British and US territories, including a naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, which dragged the United States in the war.
Two months prior to the attack at Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had approved a program to develop the atomic bomb, later known as the Manhattan Project, which Oppenheimer would spearhead. The first successful test of said bomb was conducted in the desert of New Mexico in July of 1945. “Oppenheimer supposedly said, ‘Lord, these affairs are difficult on the heart,’ before the final test of the atomic bomb,” Alan Carr, a historian at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told CBS. Oppenheimer recalled the moment years later, saying it brought to mind a line from Hindu scripture. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said in a 1965 NBC interview.
Germany suffered catastrophic losses and eventually surrendered to the Allies—Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—on May 7, 1945. By this stage, 15 million to 20 million people are estimated to have died. But war in the Pacific raged on, and thus the decision was made to drop two atomic bombs, the first on the city of Hiroshima on August 6 and another on Nagasaki on August 9, named Little Boy and Fat Man, respectively. The bombings ended the war but at an enormous cost: 129,000 and 226,000 people, mostly civilians, perished. Japan surrendered a week later.
The moral dilemma of unleashing such a devastating weapon haunted Oppenheimer for decades afterward, even though he admitted they were dropped “in good faith, with regret, and on the best evidence that they then had” to bring an end to the conflict. “The ending of the war by this means, certainly cruel, was not undertaken lightly,” Oppenheimer said in an interview with CBS in 1965, “But I am not, as of today, confident that a better course was then open.” He continued: “I think when you play a meaningful part in bringing about the death of over 100,00 people and the injury of a comparable number, you naturally don’t think of that with ease,” he said. “I believe we had a great cause to do this, but I do not think that our consciences should be entirely easy at stepping out of the part of studying nature, learning the truth about it, to change the course of human history.”
Oppenheimer was said to have fallen into a deep depression after the war. In the 1965 interview, he told CBS News that he tried to think and talk positively. “There are 100 reasons for seeing no hope at all, and I take it for granted that everybody can think of them without being reminded,” he said. “It’s harder to think of anything on the other side and I have tried to say that, however frail and however tentative and however limited, they do exist and they look to me like a bridgehead to a livable future, but not without work.”
The definitive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial, acclaimed biography twenty-five years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture Oppenheimer’s life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War. This is biography and history at its finest, riveting and deeply informative. See why the New York Times says it’s “a work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer’s essential nature… It succeeds in deeply fathoming his most damaging, self-contradictory behavior.”
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