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Riding shotgun with Oppenheimer

Robert Oppenheimer sits inside a car wearing a hat and smoking a pipe.

Photography by Getty Images

At the time, it seemed a relatively unremarkable errand: pick up the 1960 Dunning Trust lecturer from his Kingston hotel and deliver him to a dinner at Medical House, the residence and social club for Queen’s medical students that was founded in 1933.
Sure, the lecturer was notable. Six years before, he’d fallen afoul of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt because of his left-leaning politics and been stripped of his U.S. government security clearance.
Oh, and nine years before that he played a central role in ending the Second World War and launched the nuclear age.
But for Lloyd Zbar, Meds’64, picking up Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb, “was just a practical thing to do.”
Dr. Oppenheimer had arrived on campus to deliver the Dunning Trust Lectures, an annual event endowed in 1946 to honour former Queen’s Chancellor Charles Avery Dunning. During the few days of his visit to Queen’s, Dr. Oppenheimer would deliver three lectures to overflow crowds at Grant Hall: “Knowledge as Science;” “Knowledge as Action;” and “Knowledge as Culture.”
The visiting dignitary had also accepted a dinner invitation from the students at Meds House and it fell to Dr. Zbar to act as chauffeur. He got the gig, he figures, “because, one, I was an American; and, two, I had a car.” That may also have been the year he was social convener at Meds House. Sixty-three years later, he’s not entirely sure.
Dr. Zbar had followed his father and aunt to Queen’s. So, there he was that evening, driving his ’58 Chevy with the “father of the atomic bomb” riding shotgun. It seemed little more than an obligation then but has taken on significance with the passing decades, says Dr. Zbar, a retired ear, nose, and throat and head and neck surgeon.
“That was a touch of celebrity, wasn’t it?” he says, adding that the recent release of the acclaimed biopic Oppenheimer has brought the episode to mind again.
“I can tell you that his reception at Medical House was very polite, very well attended, and in contrast to today, there were no demonstrations nor caterwauling nor signs of affection.”

A polite campus reception for as polarizing a public figure as Robert Oppenheimer seems remarkable these days, but Dr. Zbar says it was not for nothing that he and his cohorts, born in the turmoil of the Great Depression and the Second World War, were dubbed the Silent Generation.
But it was also a generation known to place high importance on being respectful – something Dr. Zbar recalls about the visit to this day.

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