One of many obscure scientists who had a profound effect on modern society, Compton was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb and atomic energy. He was co-winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery that X-rays and gamma rays can increase their wavelength due to photon and electron scattering – now known as the Compton Effect. This discovery helped to validate Einstein’s radical Quantum Theory, now the basis of modern physics. In 1941, at the beginning of World War II, Compton was chairman of a National Academy of Sciences committee charged with investigating the military potential of atomic energy. He and Ernest Lawrence initiated the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. Compton also helped to develop the first self-sustaining atomic chain reaction, which led to the development of nuclear energy.
Born in Wooster, Ohio, Compton’s older brother, Karl, was also a physicist. Compton received his doctorate from Princeton in 1916. He became head of the physics department at Washington University in St. Louis in 1920 before moving to the University of Chicago in 1923. In 1945 he left the University of Chicago to return to Washington University as chancellor; he was professor of natural history there from 1953 until his retirement in 1961.