Arthur Holly Compton (1892 - 1962)

Arthur Holly Compton
Arthur Holly Compton

Arthur Holly Compton was born on September 10, 1892, in Wooster, Ohio, to Elias and Otelia Compton. He earned a Bachelor of Science in 1913 from the College of Wooster, at which his father had been the Dean, and then spent three years in postgraduate study at Princeton University, where he devised an elegant method for demonstrating the Earth's rotation. He received his M.A. degree in 1914 and his Ph.D. in 1916.

After spending a year as instructor of physics at the University of Minnesota, Compton joined the Westinghouse Lamp Company in Pittsburgh as a research engineer until 1919, when he studied at Cambridge University as a National Research Council Fellow. In 1920, he was appointed Wayman Crow Professor of Physics, and Head of the Department of Physics at the Washington University in St. Louis; and in 1923, he moved to the University of Chicago as Professor of Physics, where he resumed his work on X-rays. His research focused on the changes that take place in the wavelength of X-rays when they collide with electrons in metals. The "Compton Effect" provided that electromagnetic radiation possesses properties of both waves and particles. This work earned Compton the 1927 Nobel Prize for Physics, which he shared with Charles T.R. Wilson.

In addition, Compton discovered (with C. F. Hagenow) the phenomenon of total reflection of X-rays and their complete polarization, which led to a more accurate determination of the number of electrons in an atom. He was also the first (with R. L. Doan) to obtain X-ray spectra from ruled gratings, which offers a direct method of measuring the wavelength of X-rays.

From 1930-1940, Compton led a worldwide study of the geographic variations of the intensity of cosmic rays, showing that the intensity was correlated with geomagnetic rather than geographic latitude. This gave rise to extensive studies of the interaction of the Earth's magnetic field with the incoming isotropic stream of primary charged particles.

In 1941, Compton became chairman of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee to Study the Military Potential of Atomic Energy. The committee's work contributed to the development of the Manhattan Project. In 1942, Compton was asked to direct the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where the first self-sustaining atomic chain reaction occurred.

Compton returned to St. Louis as Chancellor in 1945, and from 1954 until his retirement in 1961, he was Distinguished Service Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Washington University. He died on March 15, 1962, in Berkeley, California.