We have recently added a beautiful silk wedding dress to our dress history collection. It was worn by Maria Thereza de Rio Branco (known as Thereza) on her wedding day in May 1940. But can you guess the twists and turns of history that link it to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the invention of the atomic bomb?
Thereza was the daughter of the Brazilian Minister in Copenhagen during World War 2. She was noted as an accomplished swimmer and tennis player. Her husband was Ronald Turnbull, who worked for the Special Operations Executive Mission (Danish section) in Stockholm during the War. The couple became engaged on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Denmark in April 1940.
In 1942, two years after his wedding to Thereza, Ronald assisted the escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark of Niels Bohr. Bohr was a physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1922. The escape involved him being stowed in a Mosquito aircraft bomb-bay to escape detection. Ronald later recalled that Bohr had forgotten to switch on the oxygen as the plan flew high above the clouds to avoid detection. He was so weak on arrival that he had to be helped from the plane.
Following Bohr’s escape, the scientist went to Los Alamos in the United States to work with J. Robert Oppenheimer on the development of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer described Bohr as his ‘chief advisor’ and one of the major minds behind the project. The story of the work at Los Alamos has recently lit up the big screen in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer and Kenneth Branagh as Bohr. It is fascinating to speculate what would have happened with the atomic bomb development programme had Ronald not managed to secure Bohr’s escape. Ronald was awarded the OBE and became a Knight of the Dannebrog (a Danish honour) for his work during the War.
Ronald was born and went to school in Edinburgh. His father was Colonel Bruce Turnbull, a senior Bailie of the City, who had a long and successful career in the Army before a second career as an Olympic hockey coach for the Indian and Danish national teams. Museums & Galleries Edinburgh hold objects relating to Bruce Turnbull’s life and career.
Thereza and Ronald travelled extensively during and after the War. In September 1945, Thereza was tragically killed in a car crash in Copenhagen, leaving behind a young son and daughter. We are privileged to have Thereza’s wedding dress in our collection as a memento of her life, the Turnbull family and the turbulent history of the 20th century.