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Harvard Classmates: J. Robert Oppenheimer and Dr. Ettore Carniglia

By Philip R. Devlin

(July 19, 2023) — In light of the pending premiere later this week of Christopher Nolan’s widely anticipated biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, below is a reflection on his connection to my family doctor in my hometown of Windsor Locks. Dr. Carniglia (the ”g” is silent) delivered me and my four siblings as well as hundreds of other babies in Windsor Locks. No Windsor Locks citizen was more beloved than Ettore F. Carniglia (1904-1971). Even one of his patients, Governor Ella T. Grasso, would have agreed with that statement. Ella adored Carney. The doctor sometimes traveled through Haddam on the old Route 9 to go to Ella‘s cottage in Old Lyme. He liked to stop at Higgie’s for a hot dog!

A brilliant student at St. Mary’s Grammar School, young Ettore distinguished himself in his studies early on and actually skipped a grade. The principal of the school was the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the Rev. John A. Creedon, who, by all accounts, was an accomplished and demanding scholar. A diocesan history described Creedon as “an extremely brilliant man” who had “the best set of brains in the diocese.” Father Creedon spent more than thirty years at St. Mary’s and is buried in the St. Mary’s Cemetery on Spring Street.   Ettore also fell under the influence of Father George M. Grady, another scholarly man who taught at the school. Reportedly, it was Fr. Grady who recognized the young pupil’s precocity and was the first to encourage him to study medicine.

Young Ettore then attended Loomis in Windsor as a day student and once again distinguished himself as valedictorian of the Loomis Class of 1921. In fact, Carney was voted the “brightest” in the class, garnering all 42 student and faculty votes cast. No other student received a single vote. A humorous pictorial representation of his brilliance in the 1921 Loomis yearbook depicts a small photo of Carney juxtaposed near the sun. The caption near the sun reads, “His only rival.” Additionally, the yearbook editors inserted the following quotation from “The Deserted Village” by British poet Oliver Goldsmith: “And still they gazed and still the wonder grew/ That one small head could carry all he knew.” Scoring among the highest college board scores in the United States, Ettore F. Carniglia was admitted to Harvard University’s Class of 1925 on two scholarships. One of his distinguished classmates was a young Jewish student, J. Robert Oppenheimer, whom he knew.

In reflecting the larger societal trend toward anti‐Semitism during the interwar period, Harvard announced a controversial policy during Carney’s sophomore year (1922) to restrict admission for Jewish students. Facing a flurry of criticism, the university backed off of an open public policy of discrimination; instead, like many other universities, it practiced a more subtle form of restricted admissions that has come to be known by its Latin name of Numerus Clausus. Translated as “closed numbers,” the practice of Numerus Clausus was, in effect, a quota system.

In 1945, for example, President Ernest M. Hopkins of Dartmouth openly admitted and defended a policy of restricting Jewish admissions. In addition, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, along with other Boston Brahmins, had vigorously opposed the 1916 nomination of the first Jewish member to the Supreme Court—Louis Brandeis—even though Brandeis was a distinguished Harvard Law School graduate. The usual “acceptable” number for Jewish admissions to Ivy League schools was 10%, a quota that persisted through the 1950s.

One of the Jewish students who was admitted to Harvard during the 1920s was J. Robert Oppenheimer (above photo)—brilliant physicist and future inventor of the atomic bomb and a member of Ettore Carniglia’s Class of 1925 who was also born in 1904. In fact, Carney and J. Robert Oppenheimer graduated at the top of their class together. Of the 574 Harvard undergraduates who received Bachelor’s degrees on June 18, 1925, only 15 received their diploma summa cum laude. Carniglia and Oppenheimer were on that list of distinction.

Oppenheimer, of course, had very mixed feelings about developing the first atomic bomb. He recognized the need to develop it before Hitler did for obvious reasons and understood that using it on the Japanese in August of 1945 would save hundreds of thousands of American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan; however, Oppenheimer also knew that further development of the A-bomb might also lead to the destruction of the planet. Therefore, he came to advocate against its further use and development in the late 1940s and 50s, causing him to come into conflict with others in the government who opposed his position.

This led to severe attacks upon his character and the pulling of his security credentials. His classmate, Ettore Carniglia, was quick to defend Oppenheimer, but public opinion was strongly against him. Oppenheimer died young of throat cancer at the age of 62 in 1967; undoubtedly, both the inner conflict about the atomic bomb and the harassment he suffered took their toll on his health. Recent publications and the new movie opening in theaters this week, simply called Oppenheimer, will go a long way toward providing a more balanced view of the man.

Photos: Picture of Carniglia is from a Windsor Locks High School yearbook. Picture of Oppenheimer is a public domain photo from the U.S. government.

Philip R. Devlin is the author of “Carney: The Remarkable Life of Ettore F. Carniglia, M.D.”, a copy of which can be found at Brainerd Memorial Library in Haddam.

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