For Barbie Oppenheimer, Retired Longtime BU Speech Pathology Professor, It’s Been a Summer to Remember
Two blockbuster movies spawned the term “Barbenheimer,” and suddenly the Newton grandmother is a phenomenon
If she was Barbie Jones, this wouldn’t be a story. If she was Sarah Oppenheimer this wouldn’t be a story. But she’s Barbie Oppenheimer—yes, seriously—in the summer of twin blockbuster movies Barbie and Oppenheimer. And that’s why this longtime Boston University professor of speech pathology (now retired) from Newton, mother of two and grandmother of five, has had a summer to remember.
“My husband and I knew both movies were coming, and they would be out the same weekend,” Barbara Oppenheimer told BU Today Thursday. “But I didn’t put together that my name connected those movies—the whole ‘Barbenheimer’ thing. A couple of friends of mine reached out. I was like, ‘What?! Oh, it hadn’t occurred to me.’ Then my sons reached out, and they were like, ‘This is your time, Mom!’”
She was born Barbara Burrington, but as a girl she was choosy about nicknames before settling on Barbie. But then around age 12, she changed her spelling to Barby, to separate her identity from the ubiquitous doll. (Yes, she did have a Barbie—and a Ken and Midge doll—growing up.) As she got older, she preferred Barb, or professionally, Barbara. But to this day, even as a 68-year-old grandmother, she says, friends still call her Barbie.
After a brief stint at Massachusetts General Hospital, most of her professional career, about 35 years, was spent at BU, first as an adjunct professor, and then as a clinical associate professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences at College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College. She retired three years ago.
In 1980, she married Donald Oppenheimer, a distant relative of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her husband’s father, Robert B. Oppenheimer, was a third cousin of the physicist credited as being the “father of the atomic bomb,” the weapon that ended World War II. Robert B. Oppenheimer and J. Robert Oppenheimer shared the same great-great-grandfather.
For the former BU prof, the two names together, Barbara Oppenheimer, carried no special significance—until this summer. And then, out of nowhere, a cinema frenzy made her name a phenomenon—Barbenheimer. Of course, she had to see both movies.
“We saw Oppenheimer first,” she says. “Because of my husband’s connection. We said, let’s go see the story and what they did with it. I liked it, I was worried it would be three hours long, and it didn’t feel that long. It was very compelling. The story takes you into it. We were also interested in it. I thought they did a good job. We don’t know exactly what Oppenheimer’s internal thoughts were. But they did a good job with the moral dilemmas he had.”
Two weeks later, the couple went to see Barbie. And a few nights ago, she saw it a second time, with friends, dressed in a pink T-shirt under a jean jacket. “We laughed out loud,” she says. “I grew up smack-dab in the Barbie time, and for that reason I thought the humor and the baby dolls and the ironing boards were all great.”
Once the two films were exploding at the box office, it was hard for her to say her name out loud without getting a reaction.
“The funniest part is that you go to the doctor’s office and check in. There is a big desk at MGH. So, I check in, I say my name is Barbara Oppenheimer, and they all say, ‘We’ve been waiting for you to come. Was that really your name?’”
It happened again on a vacation to the Midwest. “I checked into the hotel, and said Barbie Oppenheimer. The guy goes, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. Are you pulling my leg?’ I said, ‘No, it’s true, that’s my name.’”
I checked into the hotel, and said Barbie Oppenheimer. The guy goes, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. Are you pulling my leg?’ I said, ‘No, it’s true, that’s my name.’
And then again at the nearby West Newton Cinema, where the young woman checking tickets insisted on taking a selfie with Barbie Oppenheimer. A few media interviews have taken her popularity to a new level. Recent stories in Slate and the New York Post caught the attention of former students.
“Tons of students have reached out. I worked at [Boston] Children’s Hospital and Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and I would bring students there sometimes for internships. I have heard from them, and from undergrads, too. Students from 12 years out, 5 years out.”
Before the movies, she says her husband’s family name was recognizable to some people, but they usually connected it to the Oppenheimer mutual funds or the famous diamond mine in South Africa. Not as many people connected it to the atomic scientist. The movie changed that.
“Now it’s a household word,” Barbie says.
One other person is also fascinated by the buzz. Her seven-year-old granddaughter.
“She’s offered to be my publicist.”