What Happened To Ernest Lawrence After Oppenheimer



  • After the events of the film, nuclear physicist Ernest Lawrence continued to pursue ambitious scientific endeavors and advocate for government-funded scientific programs, known as Big Science.
  • Lawrence, a close friend and collaborator of J. Robert Oppenheimer, played a significant role in the establishment of a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
  • Despite recurring illnesses, Lawrence accompanied President Eisenhower to Geneva but fell seriously ill during the trip. He later died in 1958, leaving behind a lasting legacy in the field of physics.



Nuclear physicist Ernest Lawrence, portrayed by Josh Hartnett in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, continued his ambitious scientific pursuits and advocacy after the events that took place in the film. Once a close friend and associate of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer on the infamous Manhattan Project, Lawrence became a central figure in the advancement of institutionalized and government-funded support of scientific programs which was eventually referred to as Big Science.

Lawrence and Oppenheimer were close enough throughout their lifetimes that he named one of his sons, Robert, after the father of the atomic bomb. The scientific collaborators met at the prestigious UC Berkeley where Lawrence first expressed his concerns for Oppenheimer’s questionable political affiliations and sensibilities. At the end of Oppenheimer, Lawrence withdraws from testifying against his colleague at his security clearance hearing, claiming to have fallen ill due to colitis. This is the last time that Lawrence appears in the film, raising the question of what the physicist did with the rest of his life.

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What Ernest Lawrence Did After Oppenheimer’s Security Clearance Hearing

J Robert Oppenheimer during a security hearing

After not participating in Oppenheimer’s four-week security clearance hearing in 1954, Ernest Lawrence worked closely with President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a representative of government-endorsed scientific and technological advancements. The President requested Lawrence’s presence in Geneva, Switzerland in order to help establish a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, an effort that Oppenheimer himself voiced strong opinions in favor of following the end of World War II. Lawrence was recommended by Lewis Strauss of the AEC to travel to Switzerland with the President with the diplomatic proposal.

Ernest Lawrence Died In 1958

Split images of Josh Hartnett walking on sets of Oppenheimer and Edward Lawrence smiling (1)

Despite having recurring illnesses from his chronic colitis, which got him out of testifying against Oppenheimer in 1954, Lawrence found the significance of accompanying President Eisenhower and decided to go. During the trip, Lawrence has a serious flare-up that required immediate medical attention. He was flown back to the Palo Alto Hospital at Stanford University where he had much of his large intestine removed in a drastic effort to save his life. The surgeons discovered other complications and troubling signs during the procedure that pointed to atherosclerosis in one of his arteries.

Only a month after leaving for Geneva, Lawrence died on August 27, 1958 at age 57. The University of California at Berkeley renamed two of its nuclear research laboratories after Lawrence. An award was immediately created in his honor to acknowledge the future achievements of other great scientists. Lawrencium, the 103rd known chemical element of the periodic table, was named after him. His portrayal in Oppenheimer by Josh Hartnett reaffirms his legacy and significance in the world of 20th-century physics and the outcome of World War II.

Source: Atomic Archive