Oppenheimer: What happened to Kitty?

Daisy Phillipson
Emily Blunt as Katherine 'Kitty' Oppenheimer

Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer played a pivotal role in the life of the “father of the atomic bomb” – but what happened to his wife after the events of the movie?

Oppenheimer has finally arrived, proving to be every bit the masterpiece fans were expecting. Cillian Murphy stars as the eponymous physicist who helmed the Manhattan Project, only to then spend much of his life grappling with the moral quandary of his creation. 

While Oppenheimer’s story is the heart of the narrative, we also learn more about his wife Kitty – played by Emily Blunt – who had her own demons to face. The film depicts her political past, her struggle with alcoholism, and the conviction she had in backing her husband’s brilliance, choosing to stand by him despite the betrayal he bestowed upon their marriage. 

But what happened to Kitty after the events of the movie? Read on to find out. 

Oppenheimer: What happened to Kitty?

Kitty Oppenheimer, born Katherine Puening, was a brilliant and complex woman, one whose struggle with alcoholism and mental health issues was exacerbated by the isolation she experienced at Los Alamos and while bearing the couple’s children, Peter and Toni.

Verna Hobson, her friend and Oppenheimer’s former secretary, said in the book American Prometheus: “She would get drunk sometimes to the point of falling down and not making much sense. Sometimes she passed out. But so many times I have seen her pull herself together when you didn’t believe she possibly could.”

ID photo of Katherine Kitty Oppenheimer

Other acquaintances have said her “drunken appearance” was a result of the pain pills she had to take after developing pancreatitis.

In 1952, the couple’s daughter Toni fell ill with polio and doctors recommended a warmer climate to help with the symptoms, leading the family to vacation on Saint John, part of the Virgin Islands. Toni continued to recover, and in 1955, they bought land in Hawksnest Bay and built a home for themselves. 

Their future together was derailed, however, when Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer, leading to his death in 1967. The impact this had on Kitty further fueled her issues with drinking and depression, her husband’s demise marking the end of a chapter filled with tension, love, and profound historical impact. 

According to J. Robert’s last wishes, Kitty scattered his ashes over a body of water near their vacation home on St. John. She later moved in with Robert Serber, a close friend and physicist on the Manhattan Project, played in the movie by Michael Angarano.

Serber’s wife Charlotte, who was the librarian at Los Alamos during World War II, tragically died by suicide in 1967 – the same year as Oppenheimer’s death. Kitty is said to have talked Robert into buying a yawl, and the two planned an ambitious trip in 1972, intending to sail through the Panama Canal and to Japan via the Galapagos Islands and Tahiti.

But when they set out on their trip, Kitty fell ill. While a patient at Gorgas Hospital in Panama City, she died of an embolism on October 27, 1972, at the age of 62. Robert and Toni scattered her ashes in the same area as Oppenheimer’s. 

As per Kitty’s obituary: “As the race to develop the atomic bomb commenced, Oppenheimer’s new husband was called upon to direct the effort, which was known as the Manhattan Project. 

Kitty grew closer to Robert Serber after Oppenheimer's death

“Oppenheimer paused her graduate coursework to work in a US Department of Agriculture laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, until she and her husband moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, with a team of scientists. 

“Many of Oppenheimer’s contemporaries at Los Alamos considered her a polarizing figure; acquaintances of hers described her as both ‘bewitching’ and ‘impossible’.”

A scientist, a wife, a mother, an alcoholic, a communist – these are just a few of the many labels attached to Kitty during her lifetime. But the truth is, we can never truly understand the nuances of a person’s psyche, nor can we summarize it in simple terms. Kitty was a complex woman, but one who showed admirable bravery in the face of so many troubling events. 

Her passing marked the end of a personal era closely linked to one of the most transformative periods in global history. As with her husband, her life story is intimately tied to the dramatic events and profound scientific developments of the mid-20th century.

Oppenheimer is in cinemas now, and you can check out our other coverage of the movie below:

Oppenheimer review | Ending explained | Epic runtime revealed | R-rating explained | Best way to watch Oppenheimer | Christopher Nolan on sex scenes | Cast and characters | Filming locations | True story explained | Is Oppenheimer streaming? | Nolan ranked by Rotten Tomato scores | Is it based on a book? | Age-gap controversy explained Robert Pattinson’s influence | How Oppenheimer died | Christopher Nolan explains strange script | Did Japan ban Oppenheimer? | Review roundup | Does Oppenheimer have a post-credits scene? | Box office | Was Jean Tatlock murdered? | What happened to Kitty? | Why did Lewis Strauss hate Oppenheimer? | Did Oppenheimer win a Nobel Prize? | Why you struggle to hear Nolan’s movies | Oppenheimer’s improvised line

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About The Author

Daisy is a Senior TV and Movies Writer at Dexerto. She's a lover of all things macabre, whether that be horror, crime, psychological thrillers or all of the above. After graduating with a Masters in Magazine Journalism, she's gone on to write for Digital Spy, LADbible and Little White Lies. You can contact her on daisy.phillipson@dexerto.com