In honor of National Siblings Day on April 10, get to know Frank Oppenheimer. He led a vibrant life as a physicist, rancher, teacher and museum director. His legacy continues to inspire generations of budding scientists.
Born in New York in 1912, Frank was eight years younger than his brother. The Oppenheimer boys shared a love for physics and the natural beauty of New Mexico, where they visited in the 1930s. Frank’s studies led him to receive a degree in physics from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology. In California, he met Jacquenette Quann, a Canadian economics student at Berkeley, whom he would later marry.
Robert recruited Frank to join the top-secret Manhattan Project. Frank arrived in Los Alamos in 1943 and worked for Kenneth Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity test. Following the end of World War II, Frank took a position as a tenure-track physics professor at the University of Minnesota.
An era of change
However, like his brother, Frank faced difficulties and censure during the McCarthy era. In 1949, he and his wife were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where they admitted to having been members of the Communist Party during their time in California. Frank subsequently lost his position at the University of Minnesota and, as did J. Robert, lost his security clearance.
Unable to secure a university position, the younger Oppenheimer then moved to Pagosa Springs, Colorado, for a different approach to life. He spent over a decade as a cattle rancher.
Education and the Exploratorium
Frank’s true calling may have been as an educator. In 1957, Frank turned to teaching at a small local high school where he was the lone science teacher for all of the grades. In spite of the rural school’s limited resources, Frank was known to be an engaged and innovative teacher. In 1959, as the Red Scare began to wane, Frank returned to higher education with a position at the University of Colorado. He revamped the teaching laboratory, developing a “library of experiments.”
After a trip to Europe in 1965, he began to envision a science museum to supplement public school curriculum. The result was San Francisco’s famed Exploratorium. Like the Bradbury Science Museum, the Exploratorium is member of the Association of Science and Technology Centers. Oppenheimer served as director from its founding until his death in 1985. Since 1969, the Exploratorium has hosted millions of visitors and excited them about the wonders of science and experimentation.
Want to read more about Frank Oppenheimer’s life and legacy? Visit the Exploratorium in San Francisco's website .