The Oppenheimer Minerals

For a short period of time in the late 1920s, Linus Pauling and J. Robert Oppenheimer were colleagues at the California Institute of Technology.  While the tenor of their relationship was, in the end, rather tumultuous, the two did share many common interests.

One such interest was a passion for minerals.  Both Pauling and Oppenheimer developed a fondness for collecting and classifying rocks at an early age, and as a token of his esteem during their time together at Caltech, Oppenheimer gave to Pauling a large portion of his own collection.  The gift comprised several hundred specimens, once occupying twenty cabinet drawers in Pauling’s office. (For more on Oppenheimer’s fascination with minerals, see page six of this piece by Dr. Andrew A. Sicree – PDF link)

Over the years Pauling gave away a large portion of Oppenheimer’s gift – several items went to Pauling’s son-in-law Barclay Kamb, a renowned geologist, while others were given to Linus Pauling, Jr.  Oppenheimer’s original identifications for many of the specimens were likewise lost over the course of time.

A few of the minerals made their way to the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, images of which are presented in the gallery below.  We have done our best to classify each item, though our departmental background in mineralogy is admittedly thin.  That noted,  if any of our readers should have an idea as to the proper or more precise identity of any of the stones, please drop us a note in the Comments section and we’ll update our records, and this post.

[All images by Anna Wilsey]

2 Responses

  1. For those who might find it interesting, here is the text of an article I wrote about the Oppenheimer/Pauling mineral connection for Popular Mineralogy, No. 4 (Sept., 2007). I am the editor of Popular Mineralogy and can be reached at
    Comments are always welcome.


    Atomic Bombs and the Mineral Collector

    The scientist heading up the top-secret World War II “Manhattan Project” that built the atomic bomb got an early start in science collecting minerals. J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) progressed from minerals to chemistry and physics. Described by some as the “American Prometheus,” Oppenheimer became a world-renowned theoretical physicist and was tapped to lead the atomic bomb project.

    Started collecting minerals

    Born in New York City in 1904, Oppenheimer began collecting minerals at the age of five when his grandfather, in Germany, presented him with a “starter” mineral collection, complete with labels in German. Oppenheimer credits the collection with inspiring his interest in science. Toward the end of his life he remembered taking up mineralogy with a “collector’s interest” at first. He then developed a “fascination with crystals, their structure, birefringence, what you saw in polarized light” and his growing passion for minerals blossomed into what he described as a “scientist’s interest.”

    Mineral collectors helped Oppenheimer along the way. The curator of minerals at New York’s American Museum of Natural History tutored the brilliant young boy in mineralogy. Oppenheimer built a respectable collection and studied minerals and crystals, trying to understand their underlying structures.

    With Kunz and the New York Club

    In 1920, Dr. George F. Kunz (for whom “kunzite” is named) was president of the New York Mineralogical Club and the teen-age Robert Oppenheimer was proposed for membership. He had joined the famous society as an honorary member at age eleven and one year later he made his scientific debut delivering a paper on minerals at a club meeting to the amazement of the members.

    Uranium from Joachimsthal

    Before heading to Harvard to study chemistry, seventeen year-old Oppenheimer spent a summer in Europe and collected minerals in the famous Joachimsthal (“St. Joachim’s Dale”) region in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). Interestingly, given Oppenheimer’s later leadership of the atomic bomb project, Joachimsthal is the location from which uranium was first discovered.

    In 1789, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, a German apothecary, took pitchblende from Joachimsthal and extracted a dense grayish metal. He named the new element “uranium” in honor of astronomer William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus. Pitchblende is a massive (meaning that it occurs as agglomerations of mineral grains – not as discrete crystals with well-formed faces) variety of the mineral uraninite (UO2). In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie isolated the elements radium and polonium from pitchblende as well.

    Where is his collection today?

    Later in life, Oppenheimer gave portions of his mineral collection to Linus Pauling, who went on to win the Nobel Prize twice (Chemistry in 1954; Peace in 1962). Although he himself never won a Nobel Prize, Oppenheimer made significant discoveries in atomic physics that – along with his leadership of the Manhattan Project – rank him among the 20th Century’s most important scientists. Some of Oppenheimer’s minerals are preserved with the special collections of Linus Pauling’s papers at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.

    Ref: Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Touchstone, New York, 1986). Pg. 118-119.

    © Andrew A. Sicree, 2007

  2. […] by spcoll We’ve received several comments on the unidentified minerals referenced in the previous post.  Here are those comments, along with revised images of the mystery specimens as color-corrected […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: