Oppenheimer, the Genius and his Mental Health

Oppenheimer's mental health

Before Julius Robert Oppenheimer became known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” he showed prodigious intelligence from a young age. The young man would later be one of the brightest students in his class at Harvard before going on to change the science field and the world forever. Behind Oppenheimer’s intelligence, however, lay a battle with mental illness many attributed to his regret over developing the atomic bomb. But when we look back at his tragic life, Oppenheimer paints a portrait of just one of many genius figures throughout history who struggled with mental illness. Read on to learn more about Oppenheimer’s mental health.

Early Life and Education

Born April 22, 1904, Oppenheimer grew up as the son of two German Jewish immigrants. In his adolescence, he attended the Ethical Culture School of New York, where he graduated top of his class, before attending Harvard University to study physics. He ultimately graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in three years.

After graduation, Oppenheimer was invited to do graduate work in experimental physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.

Struggling Far From Home

For Oppenheimer, mental health was a lifelong battle. He had been known to go through bouts of depression and anxiety throughout his life up to this point, but his time at Cambridge marked a low point for his mental health. Soon after beginning his work at Cavendish Laboratory, he discovered that his passion lay not in experimental physics but more in theoretical physics. He was also bored by the nature of the work, finding the routine lab tasks pointless and mind-numbing.

Through his year in Cambridge, the young scientist lived in an apartment he referred to as a “miserable hole,” feeling stuck in his studies and increasingly struggling with his depression and anxiety. “I am having a pretty bad time…” he wrote to a friend in 1925, describing his boredom and lack of direction. His behavior began to concern those around him, culminating in an incident in which he left a poisoned apple on the desk of his tutor Patrick Blackett out of frustration, jealousy and emotional distress. Fortunately, Blackett never ate the apple, but news of what Oppenheimer had attempted to do reached the school, and he was required to start seeing a psychiatrist.

Dementia Praecox

Mental and behavioral healthcare has changed vastly since the mid-1920s when Oppenheimer began attending therapy in London. He was initially diagnosed with dementia praecox, meaning premature dementia, a term used to describe what we now know as schizophrenia, which affects about 1 in every 222 people.

The psychiatrist who saw Oppenheimer described him as a “hopeless case,” which most modern psychiatrists would never consider saying to a patient. Though mental health care still has steps to take, the field has come a long way in just under a century.

The Manhattan Project and Its Impact on Oppenheimer’s Mental Health

Ultimately, Oppenheimer spent a year at Cambridge, then transferred to the University of Göttingen in Germany. Though he still struggled from time to time, his general mental state improved, and he was able to advance in his career. His life remained fairly normal until he was asked to contribute to the United States’ efforts in World War II by leading the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the secret development site for the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer served as director of the Los Alamos lab from 1942 to 1945, developing the atomic bomb alongside a team of scientists he’d assembled. Three months after the successful test of “the Gadget,” as it was called at the time, and shortly after the bombs were dropped in Japan, he resigned from his post at the lab.

The period of time after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is typically referenced when people speak about Oppenheimer’s tragic life. At first, he was proud of his achievement. But as the reality of the bomb’s destruction set in, so did Oppenheimer’s regret over his contribution.

Moral and Mental Dilemma

Oppenheimer, regret overshadowing his enthusiasm, resigned from Los Alamos Lab on October 16, 1945, and met with President Harry Truman days later. The meeting did not go well. Oppenheimer attempted to express his concerns regarding the atomic bomb, as well as the guilt that plagued his mind, by telling Truman, “I feel I have blood on my hands.”

Unfortunately, the attitude Truman displayed toward Oppenheimer’s mental health reflected the larger attitude in society at the time: he dismissed Oppenheimer’s concern and later expressed to staff that the physicist was a “cry-baby scientist” who Truman did not wish to see in his office again.

According to those who knew him, Oppenheimer was haunted by what he’d helped to create and the destruction it had wrought. He was loudly opposed to the development of the hydrogen bomb. The Oppenheimer mental health situation worried the government, which revoked his security clearance after a hearing in 1954. After this, he retreated out of the public eye.

Mental Health, Genius and Us

The “father” of the atomic bomb’s contribution to the world didn’t begin and end with the bomb. Oppenheimer’s mental health struggles may have felt pointless to him at the time but looking back, they teach us something important. He was, and still is, regarded as a genius — and yet he struggled in the same way that many of us still do today. He even had a penchant for dark humor, once writing while at Cambridge that his daily activities consisted of the following: “[I]…read Greek, commit faux pas, search my desk for letters, and wish I were dead. Voila.”

From your next-door neighbor to Oppenheimer, mental health struggles have a way of making us feel alone and inadequate. Looking at the icons and geniuses who have struggled similarly reminds us that this simply isn’t true. Even Oppenheimer himself once wrote in response to an old teacher’s letter of solace, “What has soothed me most, I think, is that you perceived in my distress a certain similarity to that from which you had suffered; it had never occurred to me that the situation of anyone who now appeared to me in all respects so impeccable and so enviable could be in any way comparable with my own.”

If your mental illness sometimes feels like too much to handle on your own, FHE Health has good news for you — you don’t have to do it alone. Contact us today to take the first step toward recovery.