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Oppenheimer, Frank, 1912-1985. OAC

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Oppenheimer, Frank, 1912-1985


Biographical History

Frank Friedman Oppenheimer was born on August 14, 1912 in New York City. After graduation from Johns Hopkins University in 1933, he spent a year and a half at Ernest Rutherford's Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge researching natural radioactivity. For a period in 1935, he worked on the development of nuclear particle counters at the Institute di Arcetri, Florence, Italy.

In 1936, Oppenheimer married Jaquenette Quann, then a student at Berkeley. After earning his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1939, he conducted post-graduate research in neutron physics at Stanford. From 1941-1945, he worked in the University of California Radiation Laboratory on uranium isotope separation with Ernest O. Lawrence. In 1945 Oppenheimer joined the Manhattan Project, the secret government program to develop the atomic bomb, which was directed by his brother J. Robert Oppenehimer. He served first at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and later at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico as deputy to Kenneth Bainbridge, the physicist in charge of testing the atom bomb. After the war, Oppenheimer returned to UC Berkeley where he worked with Luis Alvarez and Wolfgang Panofsky on the development of the proton linear accelerator.

In 1947, Oppenheimer was appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota where he taught and conducted research on the origin of cosmic rays. In 1949, he and his wife were called before the United States Congress House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to defend charges that they had been members of the Communist Party. In his appearance before HUAC, Oppenheimer admitted his former involvement with the Party, but refused to name others. He was forced to resign his post at the university. Unable to secure a teaching or research position, and denied a passport by the U.S. government to travel abroad for work, the Oppenheimers moved to Pagosa Springs, Colorado where they started a cattle ranch.

He began teaching science at Pagosa Springs High School in 1957 and two years later was offered a position at the University of Colorado teaching and conducting research in high-energy particle physics. While at the University of Colorado, Oppenheimer began to shift his focus toward developing improvements in science education, which culminated in the award of a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new methods for teaching introductory physics. He designed a "Library of Experiments," a series of nearly one hundred models of classical laboratory experiments to be used in conjunction with course assignments to teach physical phenomena to students.

Oppenheimer was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965 to study the history of twentieth-century physics and to conduct bubble chamber research at University College, London. Inspired by his visits to European science museums, he began to develop a plan for creating a similar learning center in the U.S. His goal was to open a museum for the general public that would make learning about science and technology accessible to everyone through hands-on exhibits and demonstrations.

In 1969, these goals were realized with the opening of the Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, California. This interactive museum of art, science, and human perception was based on Oppenheimer's philosophy that the wonders of science should be fun, accessible, and lead people of all ages to a greater understanding of humanity and to the world around them. He served as director of the museum for the next 16 years and was involved in practically every aspect of the Exploratorium's operation.

Frank Oppenheimer died at his home in Sausalito on February 3, 1985.

From the finding aid for Frank Oppenheimer Papers, 1902-1985 (Bancroft Library)

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