Arthur Holly Compton. [University of Chicago Library, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-01878]
Arthur Holly Compton in his later years. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, P0011-00008]

Arthur Holly Compton earned international recognition for his research in X-rays, sharing the 1927 Nobel Prize for physics with British scientist Charles T. R. Wilson. Compton contributed the “Compton Effect,” an explanation of interactions between high-frequency photons and charged particles that became a cornerstone of quantum physics, to the scientific vocabulary. In 1941 he chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee, which was established to evaluate the military possibilities of atomic energy, and in 1942 he became head of the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory, under whose auspices Enrico Fermi and his group created the first nuclear chain reaction. Compton contributed significantly to the research that produced the atomic bomb and joined a select few involved in deciding to use the bomb against Japan to end World War II. Washington University in St. Louis hired him to become chancellor in 1945, and he headed the team of administrators that began the transformation of that institution into a major research university.

Born in Wooster, Ohio, on September 10, 1892, Compton earned a bachelor’s degree in 1913 at the College of Wooster, where his father served as a professor of philosophy and dean. He earned a master’s degree in 1914 and a PhD in 1916 from Princeton University. His two older brothers also earned doctoral degrees from Princeton. Brother Karl, also a physicist, held the presidency of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1930 to 1948, and brother Wilson, an economist, became president of Washington State University in 1944. Arthur did research for Westinghouse on aircraft instruments during World War I, and after the war taught at the University of Minnesota.

In 1919 the National Research Council chose him as a member of the first class of fellows. He went to Cambridge University, where he worked in Ernest Rutherford’s laboratory on radiation research. Upon his return to the United States, Compton was hired by Washington University as the head of the department of physics. He stayed until 1923, when the University of Chicago attracted him. He taught there until 1945, when he returned to St. Louis and became chancellor at Washington University. Compton remained as chancellor until April 10, 1953, when he received appointment as distinguished service professor of natural philosophy, a position he held until 1961. That year he announced that he would become a professor­at-large, dividing his time between Washington University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the College of Wooster. While at Berkeley the next year, he died suddenly on March 15, 1962.

While Compton’s importance as a contributor to atomic energy research is well recorded, his significance in changing Washington University is less well known. As Ralph Morrow, historian of the institution, wrote, “There is remarkable agreement that Compton began the process that transformed Washington University from a local college into a research university of international standing.” He restructured the administration by delegating authority to capable people who agreed with his view that “The primary strength of the University is its faculty.” He attracted well-known people to join the faculty, bringing some of them from the Manhattan Project. Compton formalized tenure procedures and put in place greater opportunities for faculty governance. He proved effective in involving the St. Louis business community in the life of the university, and he understood the new environment of government financing of university research. He sought to make enrollment more selective, emphasized quality teaching, and encouraged the highest standards of research. Finally, albeit too slowly for some, he oversaw the racial integration of the university. Racial tests for admission ended on May 9, 1952, “with a whimper rather than a bang.” As Morrow summarized his approach to desegregation, “Compton was the careful commander whose makeup would not let him storm the citadel until all of its guns had fallen silent.”

Besides making such educational and scientific contributions to American life, Compton served as a member of the National Cancer Advisory Board from 1937 to 1944 and as general chair of the Laymen’s Missionary Movement from 1934 to 1948. His work with the latter organization reflected Compton’s deeply religious views. Twenty institutions awarded him honorary degrees. His wife, Betty Charity McClosky Compton, and two sons, Arthur Allen Compton and John Joseph Compton, survived him.

Further Reading

Chancellor’s Records. Compton Series. Olin Library, Washington University, St. Louis.

Compton, Arthur Holly. Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Morrow, Ralph. Washington University in St. Louis: A History. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1996.

Obituary. New York Times, March 16, 1962.

Pfeffenberger, Amy M. “Democracy at Home: The Struggle to Desegregate Washington University in the Postwar Era.” Gateway Heritage 10, no. 3 (1989): 15–25.

Williams, Robert Chadwell. “From the Hill to the Hilltop: Washington University and the Manhattan Project, 1940–1946.” Gateway Heritage 9, no. 3 (1988): 14–27.

Published January 19, 2024

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