September 10, 1892, in Wooster, Ohio (United States) – March 15, 1962 in Berkeley, California (United States)
From an academic family, his father was dean of the University of Wooster, his older brother earned a Ph.D. from Princeton University and was president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1930 to 1948, his other brother earned a Ph.D. in Economics also at Princeton and was president of the State College of Washington. Arthur Compton studied for his Master of Arts at Princeton University and then studied for his Ph.D. in Physics under Hereward L. Cooke, on “The Intensity of X-Ray Reflection and the Distribution of Electrons in Atoms” .
When he earned his Ph.D., he and his two brothers became the first set of siblings to earn a Ph.D., and would later become the first such trio to simultaneously lead American universities.
In 1919, he received one of the first two National Research Council grants that allowed him to go to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England. Working with George Paget Thomson, son of Joseph. J. Thomson, Compton studied the scattering and absorption of gamma rays. Compton was very impressed by the Cavendish scientists, especially Ernest Rutherford, Charles Galton Darwin, and Arthur Eddington. Therefore, his second child bears the names of Thomson.
In 1923, he was a professor of physics at the University of Chicago. During his stay at this university, Compton directed the Metallurgical Laboratory in which the first nuclear chain reaction took place within the Manhattan Project.
In 1923, he used X-rays to investigate ferromagnetism, concluding that it resulted from the alignment of electron spins, and studied cosmic rays, discovering that they were composed primarily of positively charged particles. His studies of X-rays led him to discover the Compton Effect, whereby the wavelength of high-energy electromagnetic radiation changes as it is scattered by electrons. This confirmed that electromagnetic radiation has both wave and particle properties, an important tenet of quantum theory.
It caused quite a stir at the time as the wave nature of light had been very well demonstrated, but the idea that light had both wave and particle properties was not easily accepted.
In 1927, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with British physicist Charles Wilson for their discovery of the Compton effect and for their investigations of cosmic rays, reflection, polarization, and X-ray spectra.
For the same cause, he was awarded in 1940 with the Hughes Medal, awarded by the Royal Society.
From 1945 to 1953, he was president of the University of Washington and later was professor of Natural Philosophy. During his tenure, the university formally separated its undergraduate divisions, appointed its first full professor, and enrolled a record number of students after veterans returned to the United States.
Compton died of a brain hemorrhage, aged 69, in Berkeley, California, and was buried in his hometown cemetery.