Nobel Prize in Physics Recipient. Arthur Holly Compton received notoriety after being awarded the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics. The American received the coveted award, according to the Nobel Prize committee, "for his discovery of the effect named after him." The "Compton Effect" is an increase of wavelength of x-rays and gamma rays under certain conditions. Discovered in 1923, his effect is caused by the transfer of energy from a photon to an electron, thus light can behave as a particle as well. This discovery supported Albert Einstein's particle theory of light. Jointly, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Scottish physicist, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson. Compton used Wilson’s “cloud chamber” to assist in detecting, tracking, and identifying Xray particles. These two men lived such different lives with one making the atom bomb and the other studying thunderclouds. Born the second son of four children in an academic family, his father was a Presbyterian pastor along with being the Dean of Wooster College, where he taught philosophy for over forty years. His mother was named American Mother of the Year in 1939 with the motto of “A child is not likely to learn good habits from the parents, unless the parents learn good habits from their parents.” Years later, his mother received a Doctor of Law degree from Western College at the age of 74. After graduating from Wooster College with a Bachelor of Science in 1913, he spent three years in postgraduate study at Princeton University receiving his M.A. degree in 1914 and his Ph.D. in 1916. He became an instructor of physics at the University of Minnesota, which was followed by a position as a research engineer at Westinghouse Lamp Company in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. In 1919 using a National Research Council Scholarship, he went to England to study Cambridge University, where he witnessed early attempts at splitting the atom. In 1920, he was appointed Wayman Crow Professor of Physics, and Head of the Department of Physics at the Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. From 1923 to 1945 he was a professor of physics at the University of Chicago, holding the position at the university of director of the Metallurgical Laboratory from 1942 to 1945. In 1941 he was appointed chair of the committee of the National Academy of Sciences, which studied the potential of atomic energy for military use during World War II. He and 1939 Nobel Prize recipient, Ernest O. Lawrence, initiated the Manhattan Project, with him becoming the administrator and advisor of the members . This group of scientists created the first atomic bomb. Between 1942 to 1945, he developed the first self-sustaining atomic chain reaction leading to the release of nuclear energy. He did not attend the Los Alamos testing of the device. He served on the Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee that recommended military use of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan in August of 1945. After the war, he became the ninth chancellor of Washington University on February 22, 1946 and resigning on April 10, 1953. At this point in his career, he became professor of natural history there from 1953 until 1961, when he retired. He was awarded numerous honorary degrees and other distinctions including the Rumford Gold Medal from American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1927; the Gold Medal of Radiological Society of North America in 1928; and Hughes Medal from the Royal Society and Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute in 1940. He authored numerous scientific papers as well as books including “Secondary Radiations Produced by X-rays” in 1922; “ X-Rays and Electrons” in 1926, second edition 1928; “X-Rays in Theory and Experiment” co-authored with S. K. Allison in 1935; “The Freedom of Man” in 1935, third edition 1939; “On Going to College” submitted a portion of the book in 1940; and “Human Meaning of Science” in 1940. His 1956 book “Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative” not only gives his first-hand insights of the Manhattan Project but his personal feelings related to religion and science. He married and had two sons, who had successful careers. Compton died in Berkeley, California, from a cerebral hemorrhage on March 15, 1962.
Bio by: Linda Davis
Betty McCloskey Compton