Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer was the wife of renowned physicist Robert Oppenheimer, an important figure in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. In addition to being an admired woman in her own right, Katherine reportedly had a big influence on her husband’s life and career.

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Who was Katherine Oppenheimer?

A former member of the Communist Party of America, Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer was a German American biologist and botanist. She is well recognized for having been Joe Dallet’s common-law wife as well as J. Robert Oppenheimer’s wife.

Katherine Puening was born in Germany and came to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her family when she was three years old. She spent the remainder of her childhood there. She enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh but left before earning her degree. She moved to Paris and briefly studied at the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne.

Kitty’s first marriage to musician Frank Ramseyer, whom she had met in Paris and wed in 1933, was a brief one. A few months later, the couple decided to be divorced, and Puening later refused to acknowledge the marriage. She finally admitted it only when the FBI questioned her.

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Kitty began her studies at the University of Wisconsin in the autumn of 1933, where she met and later wed Joseph Dallet, a communist organizer who fought to unionize steelworkers. She referred to Dallet as her first husband throughout her entire life. Dallet was killed in battle in October 1937.

In 1938, Puening went back to college and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study biology. She married a British doctor named Richard Harrison. She began her graduate studies in botany at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1939 after relocating to California with Harrison.

Kitty soon became involved in an affair with nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who would play a significant part in the creation of the atomic bomb. In November 1940, Puening divorced Harrison and shortly afterwards, she married Oppenheimer. The couple went on to have two children.

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To honor Robert Oppenheimer, whose throat cancer caused his death in 1967, Katherine Oppenheimer started holding theoretical physics conferences every year. She became close to Robert Serber, her late husband’s lifelong friend, after Oppenheimer’s death.

Oppenheimer and Serber set out on a marine voyage in 1972 after buying a ketch. She became ill during the trip and was sent to a hospital in Panama City, where she was identified as having an embolism and an intestinal infection. She died ten days later.