Oppenheimer, Jane Marion (1911–1996)

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Oppenheimer, Jane Marion (1911–1996)

American biologist and educator. Surname pronounced OPP-en-HIGH-mer. Born Jane Marion Oppenheimer on September 19, 1911, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on March 19, 1996, in Philadelphia; daughter of James Harry Oppenheimer and Sylvia (Stern) Oppenheimer; Bryn Mawr, B.A., 1932; Yale University, Ph.D. in zoology, 1936.

Jane Oppenheimer was best known for her experiments studying the effects of weightlessness on fish embryos. She also had a keen interest in the historical aspects of biology and wrote several articles and books on the subject. A member of several scientific organizations, including the American Society of Zoologists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she won several awards for her research, including, among others, the Wilbur Cross Medal from the Yale Graduate Alumni Association.

Oppenheimer was born in Philadelphia in 1911. She received a B.A. from Bryn Mawr in 1932 and a Ph.D. in zoology from Yale University in 1936, and then held fellowships at Yale (1935–36), the American Association of University Women's Berliner (1936–37), and the University of Rochester (1937–38). Oppenheimer returned to Bryn Mawr in 1942 as professor and researcher; she would remain there for her entire career, retiring in 1980 as the Kenan Professor Emeritus of Biology and History of Science. Oppenheimer then continued to write, teach, and conduct experiments for many more years.

Most of her experiments had focused on embryological development. In one major survey, she studied the growth of the central nervous system in fish, the results of which were applied by scientists to human embryological development. Perhaps Oppenheimer's most notable test was carried out on board a Soviet spacecraft, one of four American studies that was conducted on the first American-Soviet joint space venture. Her experiment, studying the effects of weightlessness on the physiology of killi-fish eggs at five stages of development, earned her the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Achievement Award and the Soviet Kosmos Award, both in 1975.

Oppenheimer was also interested in the history of science, the process by which scientific thought developed. In particular, she turned her attention to 18th-century British medicine and in 1986 edited the English version of The Autobiography of Karl Ernst von Baer (1792–1876). An Estonian-born biologist, von Baer suggested that all mammalian embryos are similar, and that during the earliest stages of development, they form several layers of tissue that eventually differentiate into specific structures. Oppenheimer's other books include Essays in the History of Embryology and Biology (1976) and Foundations of Experimental Embryology (2nd ed., 1974). In 1992, age 80, Oppenheimer was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She died four years later, after a brief illness, on March 19, 1996, at her home in Philadelphia.


Bowman, John S. The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

The Day [New London, CT]. March 23, 1996, p. B3.

Christine Miner Miner , freelance writer, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Oppenheimer, Jane Marion (1911–1996)

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