From the archives: J. Robert Oppenheimer delivers George School 1956 Commencement Address

In 1956, J. Robert Oppenheimer was director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. His son, Peter, was a freshman at George School when then Head of School Richard H. McFeely invited Dr. Oppenheimer to deliver the Commencement Address to the Senior Class. 

“I shall talk briefly on some of the contributions the development of science has made to our times, its hopes and its difficulties,” Oppenheimer said to McFeely in response to the invitation. “If you need a title, perhaps ‘Science and our Times’ would do.”

While there is no text of the speech that was delivered that day, Oppenheimer explained later that his talk was loosely based on a speech he had recently delivered at Roosevelt University, (later published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). At George School, he sought to deliver the talk in a manner, “better suited to a young and intimate audience,” responding to the occasion of the commencement and to the presence of the senior class.

Regarding the Commencement address, The Princeton Packet reported Oppenheimer shared that American leaders “lost a certain sense of restraint” when they went ahead with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He urged the graduates of the school to always use restraint when dealing with others.”

Two seniors, Constance (Connie) Archbald ’56 and Eugene (Gene) Brownell ’56, represented their class with original essays. Connie’s essay, titled “An Ambassador of Goodwill,” was written in anticipation of her plan to travel with George School’s service-learning program in Germany that summer. Gene read his essay titled, “Backgrounds to Racial Tensions,” which discussed the recent Alabama bus strike.

Mike Kosoff ‘56 was a senior prefect in Drayton Dormitory, and Peter Oppenheimer was one of the ninth-grade boys in his charge.

 “I don’t think that many, except possibly a scant few in our class, recognized or realized the true impact of Dr. Oppenheimer’s celebrity, or his place in history at the time,” Mike reflected.

After the ceremony, McFeely wrote to thank Oppenheimer. “Your talk to the graduates was one of the best I have ever heard, and my own appraisal of it has been confirmed by other members of the faculty and many parents,” he said. “It was good to have our boys and girls come into that kind of contact with a great man who was able to share his knowledge, understanding, and insights in the way you did, and with such humility and fearlessness.”

Oppenheimer replied, “I was very glad to participate in the ceremonies at George School, which seemed just right to me, and rather moving.”


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