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Karl Taylor Compton : biography

September 14, 1887 - July 22, 1954

Karl Taylor Compton (September 14, 1887 – June 22, 1954) was a prominent American physicist and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1930 to 1948.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1930–1954)

In 1930, Compton accepted an invitation from the MIT Corporation to be president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an engineering school that was redefining the relationship between engineering and science. He took office at the beginning of the Great Depression in America, a time of economic turmoil and a time when science was under attack as a source of social ills and national despair. Compton was to strengthen basic scientific research at the Institute while becoming a spokesman for science and technology.

During Compton's service as President, the organization went through a revolutionary change. He developed a new approach to education in science and engineering, the influence of which was felt far beyond MIT. Significantly, he was active in the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, and its president in 1938. He was a leader in establishing new standards for the accreditation of engineering criteria through his role as chairman of the Committee on Engineering Schools of the Engineer's Council for Professional Development. He believed in broad-based education for scientists and engineers that was responsive to the needs of the time, and that science should be an element of industrial progress.

In the early 1930s, Compton joined with members of the APS to form the American Institute of Physics (AIP). While he was chairman of the AIP board during 1931–1936, the organization became a federation of several disparate societies for developing subject areas in physics. It sponsored publication of research results in the rapidly expanding study of physics during that era.

In 1948, Compton resigned his post as President of MIT and was elected president of the MIT Corporation. He held that position until his death on June 22, 1954.

Awards and honors

  • The Rumford Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1931
  • The Presidential Medal for Merit in 1946 for hastening the termination of hostilities by means of the RADAR research and development program he directed.
  • The Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. in 1947 for his eminence in the application of science to the public welfare.
  • The Washington Award of the Western Society of Engineers in 1947
  • Honorary Commander, Civil Division, of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1948
  • Knight Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav in 1948
  • The Lamme Medal of the American Society for Engineering Education in 1949
  • The Hoover Medal jointly from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1950
  • The William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement of the Scientific Research Society of America in 1950
  • Officer in the French Legion of Honor in 1951
  • The Priestley Memorial Award of Dickinson College in 1954 for his contributions to the "welfare of mankind through physics"

The lunar crater Compton is named after Compton and his brother Arthur, who was also an influential scientist. Compton was also the recipient of thirty-two honorary degrees.


  • Karl Taylor Compton, , Physical Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 161–179, American Institute of Physics, American Physical Society, Cornell University, 1910.

The early years (1897–1912)

Karl Taylor Compton was born in Wooster, Ohio, the eldest of three brothers (including Arthur Compton and Wilson Martindale Compton) and one sister, Mary. His father, Elias Compton, was from an old American Presbyterian family, and his mother, Otelia Augspurger Compton, was from an Alsatian and Hessian Mennonite family that had recently immigrated to the United States. He came from a remarkably accomplished family in which his brother Arthur became a prominent physicist and sister Mary a missionary.

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