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Unveiling History: The Wedding Gown that Linked Edinburgh to the Oppenheimer


Museums & Galleries Edinburgh has recently added a wedding gown to its collection, establishing a fascinating connection between the city of Edinburgh and the pioneering American nuclear physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The dress in question was worn by Maria Thereza de Rio Branco on her wedding day in May 1940.

Maria was the daughter of the Brazilian Minister in Copenhagen during World War II. Her husband was Ronald Turnbull, who worked for the Special Operations Executive Mission (Danish section) in Stockholm. The couple became engaged on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Denmark in April 1940.

Wedding dress of Maria Thereza de Rio Branco, now in the Museums & Galleries Edinburgh collection.

Ronald was born and schooled 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 also hold other objects relating to Bruce Turnbull’s life and career.

In 1942, two years after his wedding to Maria, Ronald assisted the escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark of Niels Bohr. Bohr was a Danish physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1922.

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 Edinburgh’s own Ronald Turnbull not managed to secure Bohr’s escape. Ronald was awarded the OBE and became a Knight of the Dannebrog (a Danish honour) for his wartime work.

Maria and Ronald travelled extensively during and after the War. In September 1945, Maria was tragically killed in a car crash in Copenhagen, leaving behind a young son and daughter. We are privileged to have Maria’s wedding dress in our collection as a memento of her life, the Turnbull family and the turbulent history of the 20th century.

This and much more will be explored in our Lauriston Lecture series event on November 7 at 10:30am, entitled From Silk and Lace to Fleece and Hi-vis jackets: What’s new in the MGE Dress History and Textiles Collection?

Wedding dress of Maria Thereza de Rio Branco, now in the Museums & Galleries Edinburgh collection.

Colleagues at the Museum of Edinburgh are developing an exhibition of wedding dresses and hope to feature the Oppenheimer-linked dress soon. Keep an eye on our website and social media for updates.

“Museums & Galleries Edinburgh’s social history collections celebrate our city, but they often act as a lens through which to view history unfolding across the world.

“We’re proud to care for and share with the public, objects that relate to major historical events. Our popular Lauriston Castle lecture series give us the chance to share these new discoveries with the public, as well as invite visiting speakers to shed new light on our collections.”

Culture and Communities Convener Councillor Val Walker

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