How did J. Robert Oppenheimer struggle with mental health? Was he ever diagnosed with specific conditions?
In American Prometheus, biographers Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin provide an in-depth look into the life of the man best known for his work on developing the atomic bomb. The authors discuss how J. Robert Oppenheimer’s adolescent years were marked by emotional instability.
Read more to learn about Oppenheimer’s mental health struggles in his youth.
Adolescent Emotional Instability
According to Bird and Sherwin, Oppenheimer’s mental health suffered during his adolescence and early adulthood. Specifically, they contend that Oppenheimer dealt with chronic depression and emotional breakdowns, only to recover in his mid-20s.
They note that, according to Oppenheimer’s friend and Harvard University classmate Paul Horgan, Oppenheimer was prone to multiday depressive episodes at Harvard. During these episodes, he became increasingly reclusive and unavailable to even his closest friends. This emotional volatility, Bird and Sherwin argue, grew even worse during Oppenheimer’s graduate studies at the University of Cambridge in 1925. While there, Oppenheimer allegedly attempted to poison his tutor, whom he was upset with, by leaving a poisoned apple on his desk—an allegation that would nearly result in Oppenheimer’s expulsion from Cambridge.
(Shortform note: According to the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Oppenheimer’s experience of adolescent depression isn’t unusual. The NIMH reports that depressive episodes like those experienced by Oppenheimer are significantly more common in adolescence—20% of US adolescents experienced a major depressive episode in 2021, compared to 8% of US adults.)
As Bird and Sherwin relate, Oppenheimer was allowed to remain a student at Cambridge on the condition that he undergo psychoanalysis (a form of therapy that seeks to uncover and address the unconscious roots of our behavior). However, although Oppenheimer was diagnosed with dementia praecox—what’s now known as schizophrenia—the psychoanalysis proved unhelpful. Instead, Bird and Sherwin write, Oppenheimer cited existentialist literature and its emphasis on introspection as the catalyst for improving his mental health.
(Shortform note: The use of psychoanalytic therapy to treat schizophrenia has aged poorly, as psychiatrists now contend that psychoanalysis is generally ineffective for schizophrenia. According to experts, this may be because schizophrenia has a biological and neurological component, meaning that it requires medicine to effectively treat its symptoms. The fact that Oppenheimer recovered without medication also suggests that his diagnosis may not have been accurate in the first place.)
Bird and Sherwin write that, after Oppenheimer’s mental health improved, he enjoyed great success while studying theoretical physics at The University of Göttingen in the late 1920s.