Oral History Transcript — Betty Compton
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Interview with Betty Compton
Betty Compton; April 15, 1968
ABSTRACT: Recollections of Solvay and Volta Conferences, associations with Franck, Bohr and Mme. Curie; development of AHC’s cosmic ray interest, world cosmic ray expeditions 1931-34, anecdotes and memories of places visited; Compton-Millikan controversy; comments on Century of Progress Exposition 1933; memories of stay at Oxford on AHC’s Eastman Professorship 1934-35, associates at Oxford; recollection of European colleagues Aston, Fermi, Heisenberg and Sommerfeld. About AHC: Chairman of Physics Dept. at Chicago 1940-45, earlier contacts with Chicago, relation to Michelson, widening of philosophical interests, long-term consultant to General Electric Co. (1926-45), consultant to National Cancer Advisory Council and Chicago Tumor Institute. Disappointment in Compton family life, close working relationship between AHC and Betty, relation of physicists’ wives to their husbands’ work; Betty’s assessment of her career.
Session I | Session II
Weiner:Today is April 15, 1968, and we’re resuming the interview. We left off on April 11, and at that time we had talked about 1927. We were establishing some of the chronology of the events of that year, and I wanted to review that briefly. After returning from India I think we made the point that perhaps you stopped in Europe and that since your husband had to return for conferences later that year in Europe, the Volta electrical Congress at Lake Como and the Solvay Congress, he proceeded back to the United States, but you stayed in Europe with son Arthur.
Compton:Mostly at Zurich. Young Arthur we had put in a German school there, the school of Herr Doctor Schmidt. I stayed at a pension, Pension Tiefenau on Steinweisstrasse 8.
Weiner:Did you stay there all the time?
Weiner:Do you remember about what month it was that you arrived there? Was it in the spring?
Compton:Let’s see, Arthur would need to return to the University of Chicago to give his lectures. So he would be getting back before September. So it would have been in the autumn. I don’t see how it could avoid being.
Weiner:But the idea was to come back to Europe for the conferences.
Compton:Yes. When were the conferences?
Weiner:I thought they were in the summer. That’s what wasn’t able to find out on Friday. There’s no date given there. They just give the year. I looked at the references in the notebooks, and I couldn’t find it. I can get that. But the plan was for you to stay on in Europe, for him to go back and then to return to Europe in order to attend these Congresses, and at that time he brought your mother back to Europe.
Weiner:All right. Now, do you remember anything about that period in Europe -- about the Solvay Congress in Brussels? Do you remember anything of the circumstances of that or who else was there?
Compton:That Solvay Congress was certainly managed like I thought at the time a Congress ought to be managed. It was beautifully done. Of course, you understand this is done by the Solvay family. They were the big steel people there, weren’t they?
Weiner:Well, chemistry and so forth.
Compton:Yes. I’ve always thought it was such an interesting way to call scientific persons together from different countries, with not too much of any program except to entertain them, but to give them opportunities to sit around a table and talk about the state of affairs. There was a kind of informality about it that I thought brought out and was designed to bring out the proper kind of interchange. It was really very beautifully and cleverly done. And then for the families and the wives and the others, they had quite a social program and had opera and country club luncheons and teas -- all of course in these beautiful buildings that are there in Italy. (Como and Rome)
Weiner:The Solvay, though, would be in Brussels.
Compton:Oh, yes. And then we went on down to Italy, yes. The Solvay was in Brussels. It was autumn. How could that be? I just remember the streets, the floor of the parks, all just being covered with deep golden leaves. That must mean the leaves were coming off. That’s one thing that’s helping me pinpoint it. But as to these dates, I wish I could find something and perhaps can if I search.
Weiner:Well, I think we can establish the dates of the Conferences.
Compton:And so the other things will fit into place. Well, they really did entertain us. They had everything planned in a beautiful way and all these hostesses to take us on trips.
Weiner:Did everyone stay together at the same hotel?
Compton:Yes, as far as I can remember. That was quite a group. You’ve got the picture, haven’t you?
Compton:I don’t suppose there was ever at any one time such a group of well-known scientists as at that. Do you think so? It set a precedent.
Weiner:I think it’s hard to duplicate that. How long did it last -- do you recall? Was it a matter of days?
Compton:I think it was a better part of a week, but I don’t remember further than that. October 24-29, 1927.
Weiner:Do you remember Mr. Compton’s reactions to the meetings after coming home from some of the sessions?
Compton:Well, it was very stimulating. I just have the sense and the remembrance of that, that it was stimulating to him.
Weiner:Do you recall whether you proceeded from Brussels to Rome or from Rome to Brussels? The other conference was at Lake Como.
Compton:Yes. I know we went to Rome. Yes, that was the Volta Congress.
Weiner:Do you remember how that was organized? That was a much larger conference, though, wasn’t it? It was less of an elite group.
Compton:I don’t remember the people who were there. Let’s see, Bohr was not at the Solvay, was he? But he was at the Como.
Weiner:That’s interesting. You’d expect it to be the other way around.
Compton:Oh, yes, the people that we were with mostly were the Francks and the Bohrs -- James Franck and Niels Bohr and Arthur went out in a boat together, and Margretha and Mrs. Franck and I in another boat in the lake. That’s when the men had their swim out there. That was really amusing. They jumped right in the middle of Como. That was the first Mrs. Franck, whom I then knew. I can’t remember her name now, but she was musical and we used to go to their home in Chicago for music and conversation. And of course I do know Fraulein Sponer. I knew her before she became Mrs. Franck.
Weiner:You know that she died just within the last six months, I think.
Compton:I did not know that.
Weiner:In North Carolina. Very recently, within the last four months perhaps.
Compton:Well, I remember her quite well. I remember her at some of these conferences.
Weiner:Oh, she was very much involved in physics. Just about that time she was visiting -- I guess it was a little earlier -- in California.
Compton:But where could I have seen her in Europe anyway if I did?
Weiner:Probably at one of these meetings.
Compton:Was she in Heidelberg or Gottingen?
Compton:That’s where she was. We saw Oppenheimer in Gottingen away back.
Weiner:That’s a question that I wanted to ask as long as you mentioned it. You were in Europe in 1927, and I get the impression that you saw a number of Americans then, too. It’s probably when you saw Oppenheimer. He was there in 1927.
Weiner:He was at a number of places. Do you recall a little more about seeing him or do you just remember the fact that you saw him?
Compton:I have a very pleasant memory of seeing him because he and Arthur seemed to strike fire and enjoyed each other. Of course those were happier days, and there was something about him that was more outgoing. It was an especially agreeable meeting.
Weiner:What about other Americans at the time either at the meetings or visiting Europe? A lot of them were on fellowships, and they were visiting at different universities. That year I think Condon was in Europe, Rabi was in Europe, and a number of Americans.
Compton:I don’t remember Condon. Who else would there have been?
Weiner:Rabi was there; W. W. Watson was there. I think Houston was there.
Compton:Well, Watson was at Chicago with us. Oh, this is the other Watson.
Weiner:The one who’s at Yale now.
Compton:Yes. Well, he was at Chicago with us. We used to play badminton together.
Weiner:Then you mentioned the Solvay meeting and then the Volta meeting at Lake Como.
Compton:That’s where my mother and Madame Curie became firm friends in a week’s time.
Weiner:How did that come about?
Compton:Well, it was just one of those unpredictable things. I don’t know any way of explaining it because my mother was from the country, had always lived in the country, had no scientific background. Madame Curie was also from the country. That may have been the final link there. It just seemed that when they sat there and talked there was an understanding there. How could you explain it except just on a human basis.
Weiner:I guess they were very close in age then probably.
Compton:My mother was ten years older. My mother made her first trip to Europe after she was 80. Well, that intrigued Madame Curie. Well, Madame Curie must not have been quite 70 at that time. My mother was at least ten years older and able to do more things than she could. Madame Curie was so tired by the end of the day after the meetings. She and my mother at breakfast time or at luncheon or at mid morning would converse and Madame Curie would speak English. But by evening time, dinner time, she was so weary that her English came very slowly so they’d just sit and have a cup of coffee together or something like that. It was a kind of understanding that I’ve been hard put to make any explanation of that would have any sense. It was there.
Weiner:Did Madame Curie participate in the sessions of the meeting?
Compton:Oh, yes. She was the one woman who did.
Weiner:I just thought of something. There was a meeting in 1931; that’s another meeting. She was also present at that meeting in Rome, the Conference on Nuclear Physics in Rome. Was your Mother at the 1931 meeting or the 1927 one or both?
Compton:Only the ‘27.
Weiner:Then that’s the one. The one in a picture of it, the one that we always see showing Millikan talking to Madame Curie. That was Rome.
Compton:That’s right. That was Rome.
Weiner:I just wanted to establish that. Then apparently there was time for some recreation if you could go out in 1927 on Lake Como in a boat. Was there much of that?
Compton:Are you referring to the Como one? I think R. W. Wood was in that group, wasn’t he?
Weiner:He would be.
Compton:He would be. We went down on a boat trip -- I remember R. W. on that -- to Bellagio. So, you see, that took a day -- forth and back. There were these interludes of country club and going out to different things like opera. We really had a full program. As I say, the Italians and the Belgians certainly knew how to take care of visitors at that time -- to put on a conference and have things run smoothly. They did it in an elegant fashion.
Weiner:I guess that was still the era of the Guggenheim fellowships. You were on a Guggenheim that year?
Compton:To India, yes.
Weiner:To India. The Guggenheims were usually for a full year, so it probably covered the conference too.
Compton:Yes. It probably did.
Weiner:We’ll establish the chronology and exactly how long you were there some other time.
Compton:I’d be interested to know myself. There’ll be ways of finding out if you have trouble because Marjorie [Johnston] would know better.
Weiner:See, in the notebooks for ‘27 there are entries for Europe, but there are no dates on those entries. There are no months, and that’s what makes it difficult. Here’s one compiled in Europe in 1927, and there are calculations and diagrams relating to reflection grating experiments, dates unknown, and then calculations and diagrams relating to design of a recording cloud chamber, dates unknown. So I’m not at all sure.
Compton:The journals may help greatly in that.
Compton:Would you like me to write that down? Maybe that would be a good thing.
Weiner:Yes, I think that would be good. It would be a good test of the usefulness of journals too. We would like to know the date of your return from India in 1927 and what the next stop was on the way back from India. Did you proceed directly to Europe? If so, what dates were you in Europe in relation to the conferences? And any of the background for those periods.
Compton:And of the specifics.
Weiner:Yes. Now, one thing you did say is that on the way back -- and we assume it’s from this trip, from these conferences -- you stopped first at Boston at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Was that for the receipt of the Rumford Medal? Because I believe it was given in that year.
Compton:What are we looking at now?
Compton:It isn’t here in ‘27.
Weiner:I thought the Rumford Medal came along then. Let’s see: honors and distinctions.
Compton:Well, we stopped at the Philosophical Society. Now, Arthur had been elected a year ahead of the time we stopped there and was just then giving his speech.
Weiner:Well, he was elected in 1927 to the American Philosophical Society.
Compton:‘25 it says here.
Weiner:That’s interesting, because this is Allison’s Biographical memoir.
Compton:Well, ‘25 isn’t right. It could have been ‘26 because we were gone for the year, and he couldn’t come to receive it, and it was a very dramatic reception that he got. The man in the chair, after he had spoken about Arthur and named him and welcomed him to the Society, shook hands with him and expired right before our eyes in the chair, and Arthur had to give his speech in the same room afterwards. The man’s name I have forgotten, but he was psychiatrist for Woodrow Wilson. The vice-president then was Dr. Scott from Princeton. The boys talked of “old geologist Scott who had the carboniferous knot! He told us how the earth was made and how the Lord the sidewalks laid.”
Weiner:This was all at that meeting.
Compton:Yes. Oh, that was dramatic. But poor Arthur then had to speak in that same room. I’ll never forget it: One of his illustrations -- how did he bring it in? -- was: “Julius Caesar in his dying breath, certain molecules came out and were in that room,” or something like that.
Weiner:That speech is in the collection here, isn’t it? I think there’s a footnote there pointing out that years later Harlow Shapley used a similar phrase in something he had written. Not Julius Caesar, but “the same atoms we breathe…”
Compton:…“are in this room.” Yes, “that he… in his expiring breath…” But having it coming after the expiring breath of the president of the society! I was sitting next to Robert Millikan and Mrs. Millikan.
Weiner:They adjourned, of course…
Compton:Well, they carried him out; then Dr. Scott came in to preside, and the meeting went on.
Weiner:At the end of the last tape we had just talked about the American Philosophical Society meeting. We think this was probably 1928, but we’re not sure. You said it was a year after his election to the Society. In the Biographical Memoirs they give it as ‘25.
Compton:And I don’t think that could be right. I don’t know when their meeting came, you see. It could have been just at the end of the year when he was elected, because I had the feeling that he was not able to go and give his speech at the time when he was elected, and then he went then as soon as he could.
Weiner:We can track that down. I got into that by mentioning your returning to the United States, after the period in Europe in 1927, by way of Boston to stop at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and then proceeding to Chicago where you learned of the Nobel award. You had fixed the date on that because the people from the Academy of Arts and Sciences later wanted to know why you didn’t tell them and of course you didn’t know. Then we had also talked last time about the reaction at Chicago, the conversation with Michelson, preparing for the Nobel trip; making a decision that despite the fact that it would be difficult for you, that you would still go; you described the ceremony itself.
Compton:The Banquet particularly. Mr. Michelson warned Arthur that he’d need to be careful since the spectrum had greatly enlarged since he went there. If the colors of wines and the numbers were in accord with that, there would be no telling what language he might give his lecture in, or his response; it would be the response at the banquet.
Weiner:And you mentioned that Wilson Compton and his wife went along. And then apparently you didn’t spend very much time in Europe. You came home after that ceremony.
Weiner:And it was stormy.
Compton:Very stormy seas.
Weiner:And in New York you were hospitalized for a brief time and then proceeded back to Chicago, rested up…
Compton:After the holidays.
Weiner:And then in May… [May 17, 1928]
Compton:John was born.
Weiner:That brings everything up to date now. I wanted to get onto something new, though, that started in l926. That was the consulting for General Electric. That went on for a number of years. I wanted to know a little bit about how this was done. Was it a question of going to Schenectady or Cleveland?
Compton:Mostly Cleveland. He did go to Schenectady but to Cleveland on the lamp research. That was under William Enfield.
Weiner:Was Zay Jeffries involved?
Compton:No, Zay was off in Pittsfield, wasn’t he? But Zay knew a good deal about that. Of course he was one of the top people in General Electric. Perhaps that was the way he knew about that. I’m trying to think of William Enfield of the Nela Research Laboratory in Cleveland, the name of the man under whom he was a consultant. It’s his daughter who’s the wife of the head of aeronautical engineering here [Prof. Courtland Perkins].
Weiner:How did the consultantship come about? Do you know what led up to it -- who made the arrangements?
Compton:I don’t recall anything about that. I do recall that Arthur kept protesting. He said, “I’m not enough use to you to have me coming over here. I can barely come over once a month because of my other commitments.” I think each time he tried to free himself from it, they said, “No, you let us decide that. We’d rather have you come once a month and have our men be able to ask you questions and you observing what’s going on than to have some persons full time. So you let us decide.” They kept it going on from year to year just because they felt it was useful to them and wouldn’t let him off.
Weiner:But he didn’t engage in any research directly for them in Chicago.
Compton:Yes, sort of informally in a sense when we did the first fluorescent work. When we were in England -- what year would that have been?
Weiner:That was in 1927.
Compton:Yes, that was right. When did you say he started on this?
Weiner:I think in the “Personal Reminiscences” he mentions looking into something in England in 1926 for G. E. [This was in 1934-35.]
Compton:Yes, he went to the English General Electric. There was a sort of interchange, and he saw things going on there experimentally, and so he wrote back and told about it and got them started on the fluorescent lamps. And when he got back they met him and had him go see it, and that was the beginning of the fluorescent work. And we did work on it in our Chicago house. The first fluorescent lights in any residence were in the house on Woodlawn Avenue, because in our sun room we put them in and he experimented with them. We’d come back from a picnic in the park and have something left over like deviled eggs and see what they looked like under the light, and they looked horrible, you know -- sort of greenish. He’d go back and say, “Put in more pink [silicate].” And then he’d come back with the other one, and so we’d try out the same things. It was really a fun thing.
Weiner:He actually was testing them at home, and based on his own observations was then advising from the consumer’s standpoint.
Compton:Quite. It was very interesting. He was practical like that and had fun doing it, too.
Weiner:Did you get many comments on this unusual kind of light?
Compton:Oh, yes, especially when it was at the poor state. It was very interesting. That was the time when we got a complete General Electric kitchen. We had one of the first nine in the city of Chicago, so they told us. We hadn’t intended to because we didn’t have money to put into that. Well, that’s a story in itself. I don’t think you’re interested in that.
Weiner:I was just checking on a date here. Was this in the ‘30s or in the late ‘20s?
Compton:That would be in the ‘30s, yes.
Weiner:Why did the consultantship terminate? I think there’s an end date here.
Compton:It was ‘45.
Weiner:Oh, all through that period. But generally it continued on the same basis, about a day a month, or some communication.
Compton:Or some communications. He might stay over a second day there, but he felt he could only spare that much time, and they were satisfied with it even though maybe sometimes he did more. That I don’t recall.
Weiner:Do you remember any projects other than the fluorescent work that might have been in the early stages?
Compton:Well, the sodium vapor lamp. He had the patent on that.
Weiner:That was from the Westinghouse.
Compton:Yes. That’s in the notebooks there. He tested all kinds of gases at that time.
Weiner:I’d like to get on then to a completely new story. That is the World Cosmic Ray Expedition, which started in the early 1930s. And it was about 1930 that the switch from x-rays to cosmic rays occurred on a major scale in his work, although he had done work with cosmic rays earlier. We talked of this.
Compton:The first one was his taking an electroscope down to the Colorado River. I don’t know whether that’s ever been noted.
Weiner:I think he mentions this as very early in 1922.
Compton:Yes. Well, it was one of the summers that he lectured at the University of California.
Weiner:That was during the Washington University period. I think it was the summer of ‘22.
Compton:Well, there were two summers in succession that we went because the University of California was very eager to have us come and join the faculty there, and so they insisted on us coming the second summer also, thinking they would sell us the University of California by that. We had beautiful times there. Young Arthur was in nursery school. Arthur had many good times playing tennis with Dean Hart. Everyone was so especially nice to us, trying to sell their product.
Weiner:Do you remember who in the physics department you had dealings with?
Compton:Well, Birge was still there, and who else was there? You probably know.
Weiner:Well, Victor Lenzen was there and Leonard Loeb was there.
Compton:Leonard Loeb? We knew Leonard Loeb –- where else? Chicago.
Weiner:Yes, he was at Chicago.
Compton:Yes, we knew Leonard Loeb there. Of course I knew his uncle very well in St. Louis.
Weiner:Who was his uncle?
Compton:In the medical school.
Weiner:Jacques was his father.
Compton:Yes. This was his father’s brother. Leo Loeb.
Weiner:And, let’s see, in that department at the time -- a man named Williams was there, I think, and Condon was there as a student at that time. But that was one summer. And it was during that summer that the electroscope measurements were made in the Colorado River, getting to as low a point as he could get.
Compton:I’ll never forget going down on the back of a mule. Those mules had such a long wheel base, and they’d go looking out over the precipice and then slowly turn. It was really quite exciting.
Weiner:That must have been a good preparation for the trip to India.
Compton:Yes. Then also later we did the Green River float, which was very exciting, where you had to be lashed to the boat. That’s something you don’t know anything about.
Weiner:Let’s hear about that.
Compton:That was after we were in St. Louis. John was with us and Mr. and Mrs. Desloge -- Zoe Desloge and Barney Desloge. It was the Desloges and the Comptons. We started from Green River, Wyoming on these flat-bottomed boats particularly constructed for river running. And the most beautiful scenery. We went through three states. It was beautiful calm water in some places and then very fast water in other places. Then we had to go through Ashley Falls, which has mute evidence there of boats that have cracked up and so forth. There you were lashed to the boat and the guide took one through at a time. And then John and Barney Desloge I never was so vexed at him. After each had been taken through safely and we could go on, those foolish boys dove in and swam through. Nothing more foolish could anyone have ever done because if they’d been caught in that little whirlpool, then nobody could have done anything for them. It was ridiculous.
Weiner:How old was John at the time? If it was back at Washington University, then it was after 1945, and he was born in ‘28, so he could have been…
Compton:Well, he was about 16. I’m not sure whether he was in the Asheville School for Boys then. Oh, it was a thrilling trip and beautiful. We have a movie of it that’s just unbelievable. The boat goes clear under the water you just don’t see it. My husband and John were both good boatmen and so the guide allowed them to take us through some rapid water, but not through Ashley Falls. It was really great fun.
Weiner:You mentioned films. Do you have films of any of the trips, any of the cosmic ray expeditions, in India, for example, the 1926 one?
Compton:Yes. These things have never been looked into. I’m afraid the films are dried out. We’ve got slides, just a tremendous amount of slides.
Weiner:Are these at home? This would be, I think, very important. We’re beginning to develop a film archive and look into what it takes to process films so that they can be preserved, and it may not be too late.
Compton:You could maybe moisturize them sufficiently. Well, you see, too many things happened too fast.
Weiner:But you saved them anyway. That’s the important thing. That’s another thing on the list to do, to look into these films and find a way to preserve them. I think that would be fascinating. Well, the reason we got into that is the general question that I had in mind. And that is that after 1930 the major research interest was in cosmic rays, recognizing that there had been some earlier work in it, but prior to that it had been x-rays. Now we’re talking about cosmic rays from 1930 on. Do you recall any reason then for the shift? Was it a question of feeling that the work in x-rays had been successful and had been worked over pretty well? It seems to me, though, that there are many directions one could have moved into. I’m just curious to know why…
Compton:Why he was intrigued to go into that. Just at the moment I don’t have any ideas on that.
Weiner:Was there anybody at Chicago who had a deep interest in this who might have had an influence? Of course he was the influence on other people generally, but I thought maybe there had been some tradition of this at Chicago. Of course there was Millikan years earlier, but he had been gone many years by 1930.
Compton:Yes, and of course Mr. Millikan thought that that was his field, and he didn’t feel that anyone else should undertake it. I suppose that was the old German professorial way of thinking. The main professor did his work and all of his followers were there to help him, and it was his field. I think Millikan had worked in Germany, hadn’t he? So that came rather naturally to him.
Weiner:He had his own students working on it, of course, which is what one would expect.
Weiner:I mean at Caltech there were a lot of people working on it. But anyway after 1930 the switch was from x-rays to cosmic rays, and the World Cosmic Ray Expedition I think started in 1931, and involved trips to the mountains all over the world -- Australia, the Andes, the Alps -- and you and son Arthur accompanied him on this. I found in a notebook a letter which is equivalent to a grant proposal from Arthur Compton to J.C. Merriam in December of 1931, describing the project. The objectives indicated then were threefold. One was to make a world survey of the intensity of cosmic rays. The second was to study the variation of cosmic rays with altitude. And the third was to perform some coincidence experiments with soft cosmic rays, and the aim that he stated in the letter was to obtain more complete knowledge of the nature and place of origin of cosmic rays and to test the two hypotheses: 1) attributing primary cosmic rays to photons; and the other attributing them to electrons. This is the terminology used at the time.
Compton:Yes. And he wrote that in ‘31.
Weiner:In December of ‘31.
Compton:And that was to the Carnegie?
Weiner:Yes, asking for support. And the places would be Peru and India and Mt. Evans, New Zealand, Hawaii, Alaska, Denver, and Switzerland. These places were among those mentioned specifically. And so it apparently got underway then with different teams that were involved.
Compton:We never went to Alaska. There were two teams there.
Weiner:Alaska involved Fuller. There was a man named Fuller, I think who was involved in Alaska.
Compton:Then there was a man who died on the mountain. What was his name? [Carpe] He fell in a crevasse. There were two people lost there. Then we were down at Barro Colorado Island. Did you get the name of that? We did work there. I was the first woman to be allowed to stay overnight on the tropical research island because I was a research assistant.
Weiner:I notice you were listed as an unpaid research assistant on one of the expeditions.
Weiner:I thought we would try to tell the whole story of that, as much as you remember. And I’d like to start by asking how the idea of such a grand project came about. It’s one thing to be interested in cosmic rays, but it’s another to envision a world survey involving team research in the finest sense of the term and involving considerable resources, although the budgets were rather skimpy in those days.
Compton:Oh, very skimpy.
Weiner:So the question is: how…
Compton:I remember going without a winter coat so that we could do some of the preliminary research at Chicago because at the moment they didn’t think cosmic rays were anything that was very vital.
Weiner:Who is “they”?
Compton:People at the University. Arthur, whenever he felt there was anything he wanted to do and it was right to do it, why he’d go ahead and do it, and I’ve always backed him on it. So there we were. I remember not getting a winter coat because we put our own money into cosmic rays.
Weiner:Would it have been for the building of a specific instrument or something? That’s where money usually would be required.
Compton:I don’t remember what it was for. I remember my part of it.
Weiner:That was your coat. Well, do you recall why this was undertaken -- whether the idea had been brewing for a while or whether the idea developed in a discussion or what?
Compton:I, with amusement, have said that the brightest idea Arthur ever had was to get himself out of the basement laboratory room watching a spot of light proceed across a scale and realize that the earth was a big magnet and he could take readings in different parts of that big magnet and get his information, and also see the world. Now, wasn’t that a bright idea?
Weiner:And you did see quite a bit of it. The question here about the origin of the expedition is an interesting one to me because in the letter to Merriam he stated that…
Compton:He really outlined it, didn’t he?
Weiner:Yes, and he stated that he wanted to test the hypothesis of photons versus electrons. It wasn’t the question that that idea came out of the results. Rather he went into the expedition because he had a hypothesis in mind. This is what the implication is here.
Compton:Yes, he did.
Weiner:And the only way apparently to test it was to get measurements from all over the world so you could have variation with latitude.
Compton:Quite. This other is just my explanation of it.
Weiner:And this one is mine.
Compton:Well, mine was just done in jest really.
Weiner:This is just supposition on my part, but I’m basing it on the fact that in the original letter he said that he wanted to test these alternate hypotheses. Of course Millikan was associated with the photon idea, and Arthur Compton was the champion of the idea that electrically charged particles were involved. And apparently this dispute then, this difference of opinion, had arisen earlier, prior to this expedition. But let’s first talk about the expedition. Then I’d like to talk with you about this dispute. Do you recall when you got started and where you went?
Compton:I think you probably have the…
Weiner:I have one thing. According to the notebook, there was an “Expedition B” and that was the one that included you and son Arthur. I have dates here that it was from March 1st to September 10, 1932. Now, of course, this may have been the planned dates. I don’t know if they were the actual dates, but according to…
Compton:Well, one thing: I do know that on one September 10th we were on top of Mt. Evans because Arthur’s birthday was on September 10th. And Andrews, another student of Arthur’s who now has a wonderful big firm for some sort of antennae outside of Chicago and in Europe -- Victor Andrews, and his wife were on this expedition. They didn’t discover it was Arthur’s birthday until they were on the mountain, and they had candles. I remember candles came in very useful for us when we were going up Haleakala on our expedition on Maui, because Arthur used them for soldering. Can you imagine -- using candles to solder some wires?
Weiner:Was it strong enough to hold them?
Compton:It did. It worked. You see, there was no road up Haleakala. We rode up on horses. That was interesting. I wonder if you ever heard that story. He chose the horse he thought was the most stable one and put his precious battery box on the back of this horse, very carefully tying it on when the horse gave, as he said, the longest standing broad jump he had ever seen; and the box described a parabola and landed on a rock. Of course he went immediately to the rescue to see what had happened, and there were a couple of wires that got unsoldered. I can see him yet with a candle soldering those. And it worked.
Weiner:When was this?
Compton:Well, when did we go up Haleakala? It was one of the earlier ones. I was back there just this year, and I saw some place where it was -- what date was that. Let’s see: It must have been…
Weiner:Was it part of this expedition? You went to Chicago, Panama, Peru, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and Alaska.
Compton:It was Hawaii.
Weiner:Was Kirkpatrick there? Kirkpatrick was supposed to be associated with the Hawaiian part of it actually.
Compton:Yes, that’s right.
Weiner:Now, what did you find necessary to get ready, considering you were going to be gone for so long with the family and covering so much ground under circumstances which were not necessarily predictable?
Compton:They were not. And so ordinarily we had something for the tropics and for cold weather and for wet weather and so forth. It worked out very well. I don’t know how we happened to be bright enough to do that.
Weiner:The figures I have are from March till September. Were you gone continuously? It was almost an around-the-world trip.
Compton:Oh, yes. I need to review those before I could get them separated, unscrambled, because afraid I hadn’t any way of doing that after you were here, and thinking doesn’t help me. They all sort of merge.
Weiner:That’s understandable. There were so many.
Compton:And we did so much in a relatively short time.
Weiner:In this case, though, you went with son Arthur. Where did son John stay during this period?
Compton:He wasn’t born on some of these, was he?
Weiner:Well, he was born in ‘28.
Compton:Oh, yes, he was. When we were in Peru he stayed with the Merrills in Chicago; and of course he was in school. He did not accompany us on these trips like Arthur did, because there was ten years difference in their ages, and during the ten years we did a great deal that he was not involved in. So he didn’t have the many thrilling trips that his brother did. And it’s amazing how much Arthur today seems to recall of those trips. At the time it would have been thought that he wouldn’t have got much out of them. But he was a member of the party, and he helped with the readings. We took turns. We were really quite a working unit -- A squared [A2] and his Dad and I -- especially in Peru. We went out from Huancayo from the Carnegie Magnetic Laboratory. Have you ever talked with Scott Forbush?
Compton:And we went up to -- I don’t know -- You see, Huancayo is about 13,000. You go up through the Galina Tunnel. That’s one place I wasn’t allowed to accompany them. Arthur A. and his dad were in this tunnel overnight. I had been expected to be with them, but the men would not chain the car on the tracks in the middle of the tunnel unless I absented myself. There was a superstition about a woman in a tunnel. I don’t know what it is. We never found out. But they absolutely would not. So A-squared and his dad did the work, and they had splitting headaches because of it, but nevertheless they got their work done.
Weiner:What were the Procedures, in general, when you would reach a destination?
Well, now, for instance, at Huancayo we came up from Lima on that winding road, a beautiful road and beautiful views. The Cerro di Pasco people had sent us horses to ride so that we could get our red corpuscles up to go to higher attitudes, because you can’t do this thing suddenly because you aren’t able to work. So they sent us wonderful horses to ride, and so here we rode around to all the little villages and through the country, and it was very interesting because it was harvest time, and I think that’s about the most interesting time of year to visit any country -- when the harvests are being brought in. It was the time of the threshing and the threshing floors were the old-time ones just like in the times of Abraham. They brought the wild horses down from the mountains and they tread out the grain. The next thing was to winnow it, and you could see them throwing it up in the air and winnowing it.
We’d come up to a threshing floor, and they’d want us to ride around to bring them good yield; and after we’d gone three times around the ring on our horses, then we had to drink out of the common jug -- we had to drink some chicha which was very strong. I think that was the reason it sterilized the jug. At any rate, then we’d ride on. But we did that for a week until we could go up to 17,000 and a little over it. One time I took the third horse that I hadn’t ridden before. They knew I was accustomed to horses, and so they always would give me some of the wild ones. This one was pretty wild that day, and so I said I didn’t know whether it was the chicha or what but I had trouble getting back. At any rate, we had quite an exciting time. Of course all the horses knew the way back, and they just went like the wind. You felt as though you were holding onto the wind. At any rate we got back safely. All those pictures; when you ask me about it, I can just see this threshing floor and the people in the villages and market day and meeting the people on the road going to the market.
The women were spinning as they walked -- alpaca wool. I always said that the alpaca, the cousin of the camel, was the one who wore plus-fours. Their knees are covered with hairs, with fur. Well, so we got ourselves prepared for the higher altitude. Well, then we had to prepare the food to take up there, because at the altitudes we were you can’t boil anything. So we took already-cooked chicken and soups, and the coffee was made into a syrup. You couldn’t heat it except to just maybe lukewarm, but then you had the coffee. We did it, the three of us, with our sleeping bags and tent. One person would climb out and do his job and climb back in the sleeping bag.
Weiner:It must have been pretty cold.
Compton:Oh, yes, it was cold up there -- not as cold as it was in the Himalayas, because that was too far along in the season. We should not have made that trip. It was dangerous, and we didn’t realize how dangerous it was because one of our men died up the mountain.
Weiner:That was the 1926 trip.
Weiner:But you said that your coffee was made into a syrup.
Compton:Well, they made very strong coffee…
Weiner:And then you’d add water.
Compton:Yes. You’d warm up the water as far as it would warm on little “Primus” stoves, but you just couldn’t get it hot, you see. And we’d take up eggs, hard-boiled eggs, and everything practically prepared.
Weiner:For how many days would this be adequate?
Compton:Oh, dear, dear. Well, some places it differed, I think we only made four days up there. I would have to look it up but it was less than a week -- after we’d been a week preparing.
Weiner:Where did you stay during this week of preparation?
Compton:With Paul Ledig, and his wife. She is still living. Paul? Where is Paul? I don’t know whether he’s living or not. But his wife has remarried, and I hear from her. He was an employee of the Carnegie Magnetic Observatory. I believe he was the head of it then.
Weiner:Was it a permanent installation?
Compton:Yes, it is.
Weiner:And so they had facilities there.
Compton:Yes, facilities. They had the cars and that sort of thing, and he was very good mechanically. Paul Ledig and wife.
Weiner:You first came to know them then in 1932.
Weiner:How long then did the trip to Peru last? Did you return to Chicago or did you continue on?
Compton:Well, you see, I’m confused about the two trips to Peru. You see, we went down to El Misti and went up El Misti with the Hilberrys. Norm went up the eastern side of El Misti. El Misti is a beautiful cone-shaped mountain, more beautiful than Fuji. It’s there at the head of a valley, perfectly beautiful. They said that the Indians had had famine and disease and many of them had died and they were on the march and came to this beautiful valley and looked up and saw this wonderfully beautiful mountain and they said, “Arequipa,” which means “remain here” and they did. A beautiful mountain.
Weiner:Isn’t that where Harvard had an observatory?
Compton:Well, some place near there, and I’ll tell you when we were there -- at Tia Bates. That’s a famous place. She only took people who were recommended to her. She was a real character, an American woman married to an English mining engineer. She took us. Her role in life was to civilize the engineers after they came back from wherever their expeditions were, and she was continuing to do it. Some came when we were there. She again introduced them to civilization by giving them tea in her nice silver tea service and training them. They were so eager to get information, and they would take the newspaper that was handed them and not think of anybody else; and she had to give them manners, as she said. She was quite a character. But then I’ll tell you about the persons whom we met there. You see, we were two times there, and I don’t know which one this is. There was this man from Johns Hopkins who flew over that area. You see, I went up to Cuzco and Machu Picchu without Arthur. What was his name? He’s someone outstanding. His name you would know if I could tell it.
Weiner:In physics, though.
Compton:No, geology probably or archeology. I can see him. That’s something really of the past.
Weiner:But you described this trip to Peru. Once you went into action on the top of the mountain, it was pretty much the same.
Compton:We set up the camp first and then the apparatus. And then we’d take certain readings without the source. And then we’d take the source away 200 feet behind rocks and then take more readings. We kept checking, you see. That was a very interesting trip. Arthur and I always did want to go back because we said we had really come to the end of the world. It looked like it. After we’d gone up the mountains to get some water (we had to wait till the afternoon to get enough drippings from the glacier there to get water to drink), we followed some llama paths that looked very well used and so we followed them. And son Arthur was on doing the readings, and one of us was supposed to be sleeping, but we decided we’d go out together. And we followed this path, and all of a sudden after an hour or so we just came to nothing. It was just like the end of the world, and here we were. We just almost breathlessly felt like drawing back -- sort of getting down on our knees and inching back because you’ve come to the precipice. There was just nothing there. As we recounted it and thought about it afterwards, that was the end of the world. We’d like to have gone back and explored it a little more because it was intriguing.
Weiner:Which mountain was this?
Compton:This was up about Huancayo. I don’t remember the name of it. We were breathless. And then we hoped we’d get our way back. Arthur was very good with directions. But we’d just sort of followed this path, this trail that was made by the llamas.
Weiner:Getting back to the readings that were made, none of this was automatic; so everything had to be made by hand.
Weiner:What would you look for?
Compton:We just kept reading and then recording whatever the reading said. We just copied down the figures.
Weiner:About how often would this be?
Compton:Oh, dear. How often were we doing it then? It was different at different places. We were on four hours and off eight -- that I remember very definitely as the span of time that we were on duty.
Weiner:But you’d make a reading at periodic intervals.
Compton:Yes, whatever it was -- maybe 15 minutes.
Weiner:And this was noted down by hand.
Weiner:Was it possible then to tell what the results were, to interpret the data?
Compton:You mean at the time?
Weiner:At the time.
Compton:Well, you’d have to ask Arthur that.
Weiner:Because it would be interesting to know if there was any feeling that the latitude effect was being observed.
Compton:Well, I’m sure he would get those ideas. I mean that would tell him where it wouldn’t tell us. And at the time he would say. But, you see, I was always a good listener, and I could follow; but then you try to recapitulate when it isn’t your field, and you’re not there.
Weiner:You could follow the line of thought in the conversation in context, but it wasn’t cumulative in terms of your personal knowledge.
Weiner:Well, that was Peru, maybe once or twice.
Compton:Twice, but there was a ten-year interval in between our trip down to Arequipa. Arequipa is inland. You see, here is Lima, and here is Mollends, which is the port, and they went down with the heavy apparatus by ship. Arthur and I flew to Arequipa, and then they came from Mollends to Arequipa. Then here’s this beautiful El Misti.
Weiner:That was the second trip.
Compton:I’ve got some beautiful pictures of that.
Weiner:Do you have pictures of the family on the mountains in Peru?
Weiner:That would be good to see. That gives a visual documentation.
Compton:Yes, you’re quite right, and it would bring back things that I can’t think about now.
Weiner:The historian of the future would really have a feel for what it was. You can talk about being there as a family unit, and you might even have notebooks and some letters, but it’s far different to see a photograph of it, to see what you were wearing and what the terrain was like.
Compton:Oh, yes. And we have ones from Mexico City up Nevada Toluca. Do you have anything about that? That was another expedition, up Nevada Tel from Mexico City. We have a very good slide of that -- son Arthur, Manuel Vallarta and myself.
Weiner:Well, we’ll look at all of those. Maybe the photographs have dates on the back.
Weiner:That would help to pin down some things. How about Panama?
Compton:Oh, on Barro Colorado Island. We went on that. That is a tropical research island in Gaton Lake. And that’s where the famous bird man Chapman had his home. And there were some people there studying army ants, and I went out with them sometimes on my time off. I went up with them in these blinds that you build up in the trees to watch the howler monkeys, and, oh to hear them! Then we’d come on the trails and you could smell them quite a long way off. That was an interesting experience.
Weiner:This was Panama, and again was son Arthur there?
Compton:Yes. And it was on Barro Colorado Island, this tropical research island where we did our cosmic rays, that we got the radio message -- an army plane brought it and dropped it down on the island to us – of our loss of two men in Alaska. One of them was with General Electric [Carpe]. He loved his mountain climbing -- he was an expert -- and our theory is that the less experienced man dropped into a crevasse and he went to rescue him and both were lost, because when they went back to his tent all the instruments were there and also his compass, and he would never have gone out except on an emergency without it. That was very sad.
Weiner:Were they the only two on the expedition or were there others?
Compton:There were two expeditions, and the other expedition came out all right.
Weiner:The other to Alaska.
Compton:Yes. But these two I think were the only ones at that point. This man had been one of the first ones to scale Mt. McKinley, and he really knew his mountains.
Weiner:Do you recall his name? You see, there was a man named Fuller connected with one of the Alaskan expeditions, but that’s the only name that I have.
Compton:That isn’t the name. Well, now, who will know that? Let’s see. I, think I have his name some place -- the G.E. man I’ll call him [Carpe]. I think he was just homesick for the mountains, and Arthur didn’t want him to go, but he begged to have the loan of the apparatus. Arthur had sent this other group, and this man went on his own, begging to do it because I think he was just homesick for the mountains and asked leave to use the apparatus. It was a terrible happening, but Arthur felt that he had tried not to allow him to go.
Weiner:Where did you proceed then from Panama? Here it is. You were in Panama in June 1932. It must have been then that you went to Peru because the notebook shows that you were in and near Peru from June to July of 1932.
Compton:Yes, that was on the road to it.
Weiner:And then in and near Mexico…
Compton:What was that first time?
Weiner:June and July 932, after you left Panama.
Weiner:Prior to that, the first stop must have been Rice Institute in March of 1932. Do you recall that? That was the beginning of the expedition apparently, and then from there you went to Hawaii in April and then to New Zealand and Australia.
Compton:Yes, I remember that very well.
Weiner:No, this is all ‘32.
Compton:I’m glad you know about it.
Weiner:This is from the notebooks.
Compton:You see, I haven’t thought of those things for so many years.
Weiner:Well, apparently this was a continuous trip. For that semester young John probably was staying with the [Robert Merrill] family in Chicago, because you left in March and it seems to me you kept going through the fall.
Compton:Yes, definitely he was with them during that time.
Weiner:How did you get to Hawaii? In 1932, how did you travel, by ship?
Compton:Yes. You see, for three years the experiments were proceeding from Vancouver to Sidney, Australia -- forth and back on the ships -- on the Canadian-Australasian Line. The chief officer was very interested. Some of these trips for the naval officers must be fairly boring even though they are navy men. So he was delighted to have something, and he said he would put one of his officers in charge of it; and not only that, but they built a very proper kind of little shelter on top of the ship for the apparatus. He was so interested in it that he wouldn’t allow his officers to take full charge. He did, and we corresponded with him until he died. I still hear from his wife in Australia.
Weiner:Do you remember the name of the officer?
Compton:I was just going to say it, but now let me see. A fine fellow. Oh, we had such good times. You see, we went with him as far as… For the first trip we waited off then in Hawaii until he went to Sidney and returned so that Arthur could service the apparatus. [We went from Vancouver to Hawaii on the “Aorangi”.]
Weiner:But at no time did you go on the ship. The readings were taken on the ship.
Compton:Good gracious, did we go on his ship? We went on a ship and weighed anchor outside of Pitcairn Island –- saw Chris Christiansen and all of them. One of our first trips there, on shipboard we read a book. Well, of course what came of it was Nordhoff and Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty, but “Cain’s Birthday was the book we found, and we’ve tried since to find it. We must still try. I want to, because that was the source book that Nordhoff and Hall never mentioned and they must have had that source book, as we discovered after we had read it and read Mutiny on the Bounty. But it was so interesting. They’d radioed us from Pitcairn Island, and we came in as near as we could to weigh anchor, because some movie people -- a movie man and his wife and child -- had been doing a movie on the island, and she was very ill, and there hadn’t been any ship past that they could reach to stop in about six months. So we stopped to take her on, and then all the inhabitants came out in three boats. They’re Seven Day Adventists, and it was their Sunday. They had many things for sale, but they couldn’t sell them on Sunday. So they worked it out in a very ingenious way. They handed us, whatever it was, their product, as a gift: “This is for you” with this hand. But the other hand they held out for a return gift.
Weiner:This was the culture of the islands anyway, wasn’t it?
Compton:Yes. At any rate, we got the woman on board and our ship doctor took care of her and she came through all right.
Weiner:Was the purpose of this ship voyage to get you to another station where you would make observations, or were you making observations on the ship?
Compton:Both. I remember we were doing that on the boat. You see, one time we went the whole trip. Then the other time we waited in Hawaii until the ship came back. The first time that must have been, because Arthur wanted to be sure that the apparatus was working well. When we were in Hawaii, of course we were entertained by a great many of the five chief families who owned most of the island businesses. We’d be out at a dinner party and they’d say, “Oh, Dr. Compton, what ship did you say you came on?” When we’d say, “The Aorangi, the Canadian-Australasian Line,” there’d be a dead silence because the people we were dining with were the owners of the Matson Line. It was really amusing. That happened a couple of times. Then I valiantly started in, and I said, “Well, you just can’t imagine what the Canadian-Australasian Line did for us. They put one of their officers in charge of the apparatus atop the ship. [For 3 years] They really did go out of their way to do things for this research project,” and that sort of silenced them.
Weiner:The run that you talked of from Vancouver to Hawaii...
Compton:Vancouver to Sydney via Honolulu.
Weiner:Observations were made aboard ship.
Compton:For three years, and he kept meticulous books, so you must have seen those.
Weiner:But no one from the cosmic ray research group went along regularly other than that initial time.
Weiner:Was he compensated for this?
Compton:No. He just was so eager to do something. I don’t remember: my husband took care of the payment for the reels and the things that had to be done, but no –- as far as I know, nothing. His name was Commander Turner.
Weiner:I think that’s a fascinating story.
Compton:Oh, it was. He was such a wonderful person, too.
Weiner:How did he then get the results to you? Did he send them by mail?
Compton:Yes. Oh, they were all so carefully done.
Weiner:You were in Hawaii in April and then near New Zealand and Australia through June.
Compton:What year was that?
Weiner:This is all 1932. Panama and then to Peru and then to Mexico in August of 1932.
Compton:Yes, the Mexican one, August 1932. We did two places in Mexico. Where is it you come in by the coast? It’s called Orizaba. The apparatus was brought in from Vera Cruz. That was one place. That’s where Manuel Vallarta was really very worried. You see, it was a time of turmoil between church and state, and they were always suspecting people. They’d closed up the monasteries, and we did everything that was suspicious. We moved our apparatus at night because Arthur was eager to get started. We chose a monastery that had been closed down by the state. We chose it because it was open in the center, a patio to the sky, and yet we had our protection around there. When we carried the apparatus it was in small boxes and very heavy –- lead -- and they’d pick up a box that looked small and bend down under the weight of it. So it must be munitions or gold or something, you see. Everything like that. And then to move it at night. Well, I heard Vallarta talking over the phone trying to get Mexico City and very insistent. We just thought, “Oh, Vallarta is being fussy, because he is a fussy person.” He was ashamed to tell us that we really were in danger because he had learned that the police were alerted to our being in the vicinity, and also he had learned that in the neighborhood -- I don’t know how far distant -- someone who was under suspicion had been shot before they had asked questions. So he was really very worried. He called up some of the top people in Mexico City to get them to call off their dogs. He didn’t tell us about this until years later when we were guests in their home again -- that it was a serious and dangerous time. We had gone down once carrying this apparatus in the car. Ernest Wollan and the others called it “the bomb.” Then we got the State Department to help us get things in one time -- this particular Orizaba one -- because Arthur had got the bright idea that instead of having 85 pound lead shields, which were heavy to carry, use lead shot in 25 pound bags: pour it in and then take it out again. It was more easily managed. So here we were going down from the United States over the border with a thousand pounds of lead shot. Well!
Weiner:Was there difficulty?
Compton:Well, we got the State Department okay on this, too, because Arthur had discovered after these other experiences that it just wasn’t wise to do this.
Weiner:Was there any difficulty in getting an okay?
Compton:No, I don’t recall that there was.
Weiner:I’m just curious as to what channels you would go through during that period in order to get the State Department to okay some scientific research. This wasn’t an international expedition in terms of heads of state cooperating. It was private research sponsored by the Carnegie Institution in Washington. Well, it would be good to try to dig into that.
Compton:No, it wasn’t sponsored by the Carnegie, was it?
Weiner:Well, they gave a grant.
Compton:Was it at that time? They gave a grant covering that, too, in Mexico?
Weiner:That was in 1932.
Compton:That was part of the Mexican one, wasn’t it? You see, we did two. We went up Nevada Toluca, and then we were at this Orizaba place. There were two spots we did. And they hurried up in Mexico to finish a building at the top of Nevada Toluca. They’d just built a road up there, and they wanted to finish a rest house at the top. And they rushed and got it through. I’ll never forget that. It had a big fireplace that had one, two, three, four openings. It was cold and it was windy and it was raining, and they wanted to get everything warmed up and they stuffed each of them full of wood and started it. Of course it smoked, and everybody had to run out in the rain -- just wept tears. Then we had our sleeping bags, and the roof leaked so -- it was put together so quickly. And so I remember having to move the sleeping bags, and here would be a trickle of water coming down in between. There were really some hardships that one had to go through. If you’re reasonably normal, you don’t remember the hardships in the sense of their being hardships, I think.
Weiner:How did you…?
Compton:I was expected to do all these things like a good research assistant.
Weiner:Wasn’t there special treatment of you because you were a woman?
Compton:I think they were all amazed -- the men were -- that Arthur allowed me, so to speak, to do the things I did, because women in these countries -- like India and Pakistan -- just didn’t do things like that.
Weiner:There was no other precedent for this as far as you know.
Compton:No. And in the areas we went I suppose there wasn’t. I don’t recall that there would have been. I wasn’t thinking of that sort of thing.
Weiner:But at the same time, after sleeping in a sleeping bag at the top of a mountain or under a leaky roof, then you would show up at some sophisticated reception.
Compton:I seemed to have a change of clothing for that. There’s this very nice picture up at Nevada Toluca I remember the one time the sun did come out. The newspaper people came up because this was the inauguration of this building, this rest house at the top. And they came up, and they weren’t accustomed to the altitude. You see, Mexico City is a mile high to start with. Then Nevada Toluca is up more -- I don’t recall how much. Is it another thousand feet? Maybe more. I don’t recall. But one of the newspaper men just fell over in a faint. The altitude was too much for him. He fell against the bumper of a car, and he cut this part of his ear -- just severed it. It just was hanging on a string. And Arthur put it together with some adhesive tape, and, as far as we knew, it grew back on. We think it did. But I mean there were just all these little things, happenings that would make quite a travelogue if I could write them up in proper fashion. It would be a research log, wouldn’t it?
Weiner:Right, from a special point of view. How did son Arthur take it?
Compton:Oh, he was a good soldier always, except at the very first, going to Kashmir -- the altitude got him a little bit at first. I was the best person in the altitude. I don’t know why, but I seemed to get along. Do you have anything on our trip up the Jungfraujoch? We did cosmic rays up the Jungfraujoch. We did ever so many more than you’ll ever know about.
Weiner:Well, we’ll find out -- get them one by one.
Compton:That was with the man who had been in Princeton, Bernard Fry. You remember Bernard Fry? He was here for several years. That was interesting. I don’t know whether you want to embark on that or not.
Weiner:Well, it depends on the time sequence of that. Was that much later? Was this later in the ‘30s? Well, it would have to be in the ‘30s. There were some readings in Switzerland, in Spitzbergen, but I don’t know whether that involved you. I have a feeling that this was done by Marcel Schein.
Compton:[Marcel was with us] Well, we were with Schein. He was with us on the Jungfraujoch. Oh, yes, and we did mountain climbing with him off the Jungfraujoch -- he and his wife and Arthur and myself. We were the expedition.
Weiner:I see. Well, how did you come in contact with Schein?
Compton:We got him out of Czechoslovakia. He came to the University of Chicago. I’ll never forget when he came after his harrowing experience. He looked just haunted because wherever they’d been they couldn’t go down the street and look in the window without being shadowed. It was horrible. He was always so thankful to have come there. His wife is still in Chicago.
Weiner:I have the letter in our archives that your husband wrote to Schein welcoming him to the United States. This letter was addressed to him in New York I think when he was just stopping off on his way to Chicago. It was welcoming him and saying, “We’re anxious to see you.”
Compton:Oh, well, Marcel was wonderful. Well, he was a seasoned mountain climber. So was Hilda, his wife. So when we went up after we got our research at the Jungfraujoch, we went doing some little climbing around. I was roped to Marcel and Hilda and Arthur together, and we went scrambling around on this razor edge. It was down here and down there -- oh! I was glad to be with someone who knew his mountains.
Weiner:This was after he had come to the United States, and this was another expedition back to Europe.
Weiner:On this earlier expedition, the one we started to talk about in detail -- you mentioned ‘32 -- after you left Mexico, you apparently went to Northern Canada from August through September.
Weiner:Yes, as part of the same expedition. And then you returned to Chicago in October.
Compton:Where did we go in Northern Canada, do you suppose? [Arthur went on a Canadian ocean -- going Tug Boat – observing the pack-ice in Fox Channel. They wouldn’t take a woman for the shipping.]
Weiner:I don’t know. This is just the general index from the notebooks. But anyway you got back to Chicago.
Compton:Some time I want to tell you about that trip up Jungfraujoch.
Weiner:Let’s talk about it now. I’ve lost the thread of this earlier trip, and that just about completes it. I’d like to hear about it. You went with the Scheins, and who else?
Compton:Bernard Fry, who had been here at Princeton. He had large holdings – vineyards -- in Switzerland. And on the way up we stayed at a pension called the Eagle. We were getting our plans together and so forth and people signing in the guest book. There were several others whose names I can’t recall -- one who signed Privatdozent Universitat. And each would put down their particular post. I’m sure that Arthur didn’t pay any attention to that. When they said, “Here, you sign,” he’d put down “Arthur Compton, Chicago.” Then Fry was not to be outdone. He came along really to help as he could with the scientific work but as a cook. He brought from his own vineyards wonderful marsala wine, and he made us Zabaglione. I never forget that. So here was Arthur after these “Privatdozent Universitat, Zurich,” and whatever the other one was, “Arthur Compton, Chicago,” and he put down “B. Fry, Koch.” He had a wonderful sense of humor. He was delightful. Then Marcel Schein put down his and Hilda’s names. I just put down “Betty Compton,” because it wasn’t necessary to put down anything else.
Weiner:Where was this book kept?
Compton:At this pension called “The Eagle.” That was before we then took the train to go up to the Jungfraujoch. Then we got off there and stayed two or three nights, I guess.
Weiner:Did you camp out there?
Compton:Well, it seems to me that there was a place that we could stay. The apparatus had to be out, though. I think there was some sort of a shelter that we stayed in. I just remember the very good things that B. Fry produced for us.
Weiner:Where did he do the cooking?
Compton:He just had a little place there, but I remember this zabaglione. I’ll never forget that. I hadn’t thought of that for years.
Weiner:It was better than the cold chicken and the hard-boiled eggs.
Compton:And the syrupy coffee.
Weiner:I’ll get back to that later and find out where else you went when you went there, because that puts you in Europe. But let me ask something about an earlier time in Europe. In 1931 there was a conference in Rome, an international conference, and that’s where the famous picture of Madame Curie and Millikan and others was taken.
Compton:And, let’s see, Fermi was there and a number of others. Who’s the person from England?
Weiner:Was Aston there?
Compton:No, but Aston was the one whose name I was vainly searching to get out of my memory for the Century of Progress balloon flight and the Century of Progress Fair. He was the one that came in from England, and I was glad to see Aston: he was glad to see me. He and I were conversing, very quietly, we thought, when Mrs. Dawes tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You should be listening to these men. They are very great men.” Werner: That completes that story.
Compton:Yes, Aston was the one. We had such fun with him in Cambridge, you see. It was just renewing our acquaintance. That was always the interesting part of these scientists, and it was the thing that had which many of the scientists’ wives didn’t have because Arthur always expected me to go with him, you see. The other wives didn’t. I remember one of the wives at the University of Chicago just marveled that I could go and do these things, because she said, “I’m afraid I’ve been a millstone around my husband’s neck all these years.” I won’t tell you who it was.
Weiner:Because she wasn’t interested in going?
Compton:Well, she felt that she needed to stay home and do the family chores. I certainly did enough family chores, too.
Weiner:In 1931 at that meeting you first met the Fermis, I gather. There’s some written reference to this.
Compton:That’s right, in their apartment.
Weiner:Do you recall the circumstances of that? Did you have a meal there?
Compton:We went to the apartment, and we had tea or coffee I remember. I can see Laura yet taking us into the bedroom. Now, let’s see, was it Nella or was it Guilio? Which is the older? It must have been Nella. It was a little baby about this long in the crib. Just certain things like that will stand out. So we were very interested. I don’t know who else would have known Enrico at that time, to have followed through on some of these things.
Weiner:What about the meeting itself? Do you remember very much about that meeting as compared to the previous trip to Italy in 1927 when you went to Como?
Compton:Well, I remember Marconi and his wife. I don’t know what her title was -- countess or what. Who was this German? A short man who came to Chicago afterwards to see us.
Compton:[No, it was Arnold Sommerfeld.] No, that was later when Heisenberg came. He lived in our house in Chicago for three months, played Bach every day. He could have been quite a concert pianist if he’d kept up his practicing, and wanted to be.
Weiner:When did he visit?
Compton:It was a cosmic ray conference that Arthur put on.
Weiner:That big symposium? That was 1938 or ‘39.
Compton:Yes, it must have been that one.
Weiner:1939 apparently. That’s right. We’ll get into that. But you were talking about the German who came to the meeting.
Compton:I wish I could see those pictures again.
Weiner:Heitler was there at the time. He’s in these pictures that I saw.
Compton:In Chicago I entertained him, Sommerfeld, and Michelson together. I had brought gold leaf and silver leaf from India. And on that occasion for their dessert I put gold leaf on both Michelson and this man, and they never forgot it. Every time they saw me they remembered. And then I gave everybody else silver. What was his name anyway? He’s the one who tried the chewing gum. He said, “People say it’s such fun chewing gum. I bought some, and I chewed and I chewed and I chewed, and I didn’t get any pleasure out of it.”
Weiner:That meeting was, I think, in the summer of 1931.
Compton:You mean the one in Rome.
Weiner:In Rome. Was this part of another road trip? It’s hard to keep track of these trips.
Compton:Isn’t it? Well, you don’t wonder that I can’t keep track of them.
Weiner:But there’s nothing else that you recall as being especially interesting or significant about that 1931 Rome meeting. I ask because it was the first real conference where nuclear physics itself as a subject was of major interest. Let’s get back then unless…
Compton:No, I’m just trying to think. It’s most difficult.
Weiner:Getting back to Chicago, at the end of 1932 there was the meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science, and at that meeting Arthur Compton engaged in another debate. It wasn’t staged as a debate the way the earlier one with Duane had been handled in 1923 and 1924. But I guess this was the Atlantic City meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the results of the cosmic ray expeditions that had been completed up until that time in 1932 -- these were all the trips that we have just been talking about -- were presented. And apparently they demonstrated that in fact there was a latitude effect and that this was evidence of the electrically-charged-particle theory of cosmic rays. And from what I know of it there was considerable dispute over these findings or at least a contrary position taken publicly by Millikan. What I’d like to ask to start is: What is the origin of the relationship with Millikan? When was the first time that Millikan came into the life of the Comptons?
Compton:Well, you see, we came to the University of Chicago to take his place. We’d seen him at this lecture, this meeting of the Philosophical Society at Philadelphia and the British Association meeting in Toronto.
Weiner:The one you mentioned before with the dramatic incident.
Compton:Yes. We’d seen him there. And I don’t know whether there were other meetings. Do you suppose when Arthur went up to Chicago the times of discussing his move to Chicago -- there must have been meetings before Millikan left. I have no remembrances of any specific one.
Weiner:Were there ever any trips to Caltech during the ‘20s?
Compton:Well, we didn’t go there until after he had left. Then we went to Caltech and Arthur lectured there. He went to Caltech then in 1923, didn’t he? And we went to the University of Chicago in 1923.
Weiner:Was there much correspondence between them?
Compton:I don’t think so. We’ve got some correspondence on some things. Of course you have what he wrote about Millikan, which is very generous.
Weiner:There is some correspondence at Caltech for the period, I think, from the ‘30s, extensive correspondence, where the debate was carried…
Compton:In private letters.
Weiner:Yes, in private letters, and some of them rather rough.
Compton:Well, on Millikan’s side. He was apt to be a little rough because he was so positive about his conclusion.
Weiner:What I’m curious about is: Was there any other basis for disagreement other than the difference of ideas and difference of interpretation? Was there anything else that had come up personally or in any other way?
Compton:I wouldn’t think so. I don’t know of anything.
Weiner:And there was really no personal relationship for better or for worse other than through the research field that they were both interested in.
Compton:Yes, as far as I know.
Weiner:Well, then, at that meeting -- you were not present at the meeting according to what you said.
Compton:That’s right, I was present at Toronto, but I was not present at Atlantic City. But you ought to talk with Bill Laurence about that to get the real drama of that, because he remembers it vividly. When I talked to him over the phone last year he said, “I’ve just promised myself that I’m going to go back again and look at my notes on that.”
Weiner:What was Mr. Compton’s reactions to Millikan’s statements?
Compton:I think he just felt that he knew Millikan’s statements were not correct. He would stick by his statements himself. You see, he had this feeling always that he couldn’t afford, as he said, the luxury of losing his temper, because it colored his work. That was a discipline with him, that he was not going to go off the deep end.
Weiner:That took some control.
Compton:Absolutely, absolutely. We’ve realized it more and more as we know more and more what happened, why he couldn’t just fly off.
Weiner:Did anyone else get involved in this dispute? Did other people consider it very important? Or was it a question of just a dispute between two individuals?
Compton:I wonder about that. I would have to think about that.
Weiner:Those are some of the hardest things to get at. We know that there was a dispute between two individuals; we know that it was reported in the newspaper. But whether or not it became two opposing camps rather than two individuals, we don’t know.
Compton:I’m sure there must have been the taking of sides. Bill Laurence would have sensed it at the meeting as among those who were there who spoke up, and I think he would be your one there. At the moment I wouldn’t be able to think of anyone else, who was involved in that controversy.
Weiner:Well, there were other people at Chicago in cosmic rays -- Harvey Lemon, for example. Then of course there were people associated with Millikan at Caltech. There was Neher and Carl Anderson. Then there were people on the international scene -– Rossi and Blackett.
Compton:Yes. Blackett is one I was trying to think of who was at this meeting in Rome. And of course Rossi is at MIT now.
Weiner:Rossi has been interested in the history of the subject and has written something in general about it. I might ask him.
Compton:You ask him. See, we brought Rossi to Chicago.
Weiner:I’d like to know the circumstances of that.
Compton:Well, he needed to have a job, and Arthur was willing. They felt very thankful. They felt it was an act which showed his trust in him, his confidence in him as a person. I believe that’s the way he felt about it.
Weiner:When we left off, I think we had just come to the point where I wanted to ask you about the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933. Apparently there was a science theme to the Fair. At least there was considerable emphasis on science.
Compton:They consulted Arthur about some dramatic way of starting it. As far as I know, it came out in discussion -- I don’t know whether it was his suggestion or someone else’s -- that they start off with the light coming from the furthest star.
Weiner:The light was supposed to be 40 light years away.
Compton:For one reason or another it was supposed to be the one that would be dramatic. And that was the beginning of it. And the scientific part of it was the balloon part, and they worked hard on that. I’m not quite certain about how this balloon came about. I know that Arthur had wanted balloons, larger ones, for cosmic ray research, but found that the molds were very expensive, and so we were not able to have them for that until suddenly they heard that there was a big one being made and they could get some. And it all came about because Sally Rand wanted a big balloon. So Sally Rand helped in the cosmic ray expedition by demanding that she have a balloon of the dimensions which they happened to want for cosmic rays.
Weiner:What was her intention?
Compton:I don’t know. Instead of fans, I suppose. I didn’t know Sally Rand. You’ll have to go into that with other persons. But at any rate, they were made by the people in Akron, Goodyear. So great conferences went on as to what to put into it, and the fruit flies that were to go into it and the cosmic ray equipment. Then there was a big controversy about Piccard, and people thought that he would get excited if he went up in it and would probably ruin everything. So they were quite loath to have him go in it.
Weiner:What was that? Was he known for this kind of personality?
Compton:He was very excitable. I don’t know. They just thought he had wild ideas and was sort of an untamed individual. That’s my recollection of the gossip that went around.
Weiner:You mentioned the discussions. Who participated in these discussions about the balloon -- how to get it and how to use it?
Compton:Of course it had to come through the president. I think Dawes had something to do with it, because he was the president of the Century of Progress Exposition. So he was involved. I honestly don’t recall.
Weiner:Do you remember Gordon Fulcher? Was he involved in any way? I know he was involved in doing some of the scientific work for it, and so was Henry Crew.
Compton:Yes. Henry Crew was at Northwestern.
Weiner:Yes, and I think Henry Crew had a lot to do with the general science exhibits.
Compton:Yes, he did, but I couldn’t think about the balloon. I really don’t know who else. There were some of Arthur’s students. Now who would they have been?
Weiner:How about Luis Alvarez?
Compton:I know. You ask Luis or ask someone else. It could have been Ernest Wollan or it could have been this man Vic Andrew. I wouldn’t be surprised. But I have no definite recollection.
Weiner:You mentioned fruit flies. That means that there was a biological experiment?
Compton:Oh, yes, also.
Weiner:How long was the flight to be? I mean was this to be retrievable? You wanted this to go up and come back?
Compton:Oh, yes. Well, you see, they had a false start. One went up and came down on the tracks.
Weiner:There’s a published article on it which I haven’t seen.
Compton:The only thing I remember is my seeming faux pas, my appearing to be a nonscientific person not listening to what the wonderful men were having to say on the platform. Here Aston and I were just as quiet as we could be, but we were whispering in each other’s ears, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. But we were reprimanded by Mrs. Dawes. We didn’t know who she was, and she didn’t know who we were. Then came the awful moment when we came down the line.
Weiner:What was the occasion -- you may have mentioned it before, but I’ve forgotten -- the occasion of the speech making? Was this the opening of the Fair, or was it the balloon-launching?
Compton:No, it was the opening. That’s right. Karl was there on the platform and Dawes and Arthur. I don’t remember Karl speaking but when Arthur was speaking I said to her sort of mischievously, “At least I think I know what this person is going to say.” And, oh, she looked at me as though she could send daggers through me.
Weiner:That was at the time when the light from the star was supposed to…
Compton:That’s right. It was dramatic.
Weiner:At that time also there were a number of scientific meetings held in conjunction with the Fair. The AAAS had a meeting and the American Physical Society had a meeting.
Compton:I expect you could find all those programs if you wanted to.
Weiner:I know a little about it. I know there were many foreign visitors there, and Aston of course was one of them.
Compton:Who were some of the others? You tell me.
Weiner:I do have a list but I don’t remember it. During this period in the early ‘30s there were some summer school activities. For example, one summer was at Columbia University. That was probably when? 1932?
Compton:I didn’t come with him.
Weiner:I see. Was it for just one session, one six-week period?
Compton:That’s right. I was up at Michigan at Otsego Lake with the boys because I knew they shouldn’t be in New York.
Weiner:But in 1934 there was the conference in London, and that must have taken place during the year at Oxford. I wanted to go into that a bit and find out how that trip to Oxford came about and why.
Compton:Well, you see, it was the Eastman professorship. Mr. Eastman of Eastman Kodak at one time felt that it would be an exceedingly good thing to have an American as a professor at Oxford; and so he endowed one. The first one who had that professorship was John Livingston Lowes. He had been at Washington University earlier and then was at Harvard at the time. In between times there had been economists and others. Felix Frankfurter was the one who held the professorship just before we went. And Arthur was the first scientist to be called to Oxford on this, and presumably because ordinarily they felt that Cambridge was the scientific center and not Oxford. But he was the first physical scientist to be called, and it was a most interesting year. They had a house all prepared and ready for us on the park. It was interesting to go into a well-equipped house, not knowing what linens you had in your buffet drawers and so forth. We had many amusing experiences, too, because they had a resident person who took care of the house there. I might say that I made my triumphant entry into Oxford on crutches. At Otsego Lake I was busily doing some things, and I had broken my ankle. I felt that because I had always done so much riding and was such an outdoor person that none of my bones would break. So I was very sad to find out that they would. Then going over on shipboard it was quite a thing to negotiate walking on deck on crutches. My first purchases in Oxford were two sturdy ash sticks to take the place of the crutches.
Weiner:You mean that you were improving or just conforming to…
Compton:Oh, I was improving, but I didn’t like the crutches. Anyway we had a beautiful garden. The house that had been rented for us belonged to St. John’s College but was on a 99-year lease, and it was the last year of the lease, and so no one was eager to make any improvements in it in that last year of the lease. So we lived through some things that could have been remedied which weren’t, but meanwhile we had a beautiful garden and were right on the park. It was very interesting. Howard Lowry came and lived with us there. He was on a Guggenheim. He lived with us for almost two months. He was then doing some interesting things -- the Arthur Hugh Clough poetry and the Matthew Arnold correspondence. He was a Matthew Arnold specialist. He was a professor of English here at Princeton, slated to be the dean. He came to be president of the College of Wooster. He was doing the Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough correspondence. And Arthur Hugh Clough’s son was living down in Salisbury. So all these things made it an interesting year, because we walked all over the Matthew Arnold area -- the Boar’s Hill where The Scholar Gypsy was written and all such places; found the “signal elm,” which is an oak. We went down to Salisbury and stayed two weekends with the son and family of Arthur Hugh Clough, and they came up in turn with us to Oxford. I made room up in the third floor of our mansion there at Oxford for Howard Lowry, putting tables like this all around the room, so when he did the poetry he could be free. If he wanted number 1 to 40 or so forth, he could walk around and change his mind as much as he wanted to. Oh, we had tremendously gay times. Then our next-door neighbor was a tremendously interesting gentleman who had written a Chinese grammar, Professor Suthill. There are just a few things like that that come back now as I think of the interesting time. I gave special parties for the Rhodes scholars, and gave them the surprise of their lives because I made 200 pumpkin tarts for them.
Weiner:For Thanksgiving or Halloween or…?
Compton:Just because in England they don’t know anything about making pumpkin pie. They make it like a vegetable. It isn’t very tasty. So I gave them a treat (spices and all). Then Thornton Page and my Johnny and I went on a wonderful trip all around Scotland and all around Ireland. I haven’t thought of that trip in a long time. My husband had planned to go with me to Ireland two other times before, and because of his terrific conscience about doing something that he said he’d do, he went back. This time, lo and behold, two Commonwealth fellows had come to work with him at the University of Chicago, and here he was in England. And he was feeling this tremendous responsibility that he always felt about doing things. He said, “I just can’t make the trip to Ireland.” Well, after two other trips we’d tried to plan there, I said, “Well, I’m going.” So I looked around among the Rhodes scholars and saw the one I thought would be a good companion, and that was Thorton Page. I knew he’d been head of the Yale Outing Club two years in succession. We knew his father and mother -- Leigh Page, at Yale you know. And so we had a good time. I had a small Morris Minor, and we drove around during Easter vacation. We got special permission; we stayed at youth hostels in each of these places. We could drive long distances and then hike in the last mile or two. We had our ruck sacks and all, and we stayed at the hostels. We slept in a barn with the Irish players one night for a makeshift hostel. You ought to have heard Thornton and little Johnny and me singing. From then on Johnny’s always had a good voice. We sang Gilbert and Sullivan all over Ireland. Oh, we just had a grand time.
Weiner:Where was A-squared at the time?
Compton:A-squared was -- where would he have been in ‘34-‘35? He was not in college. See he wasn’t graduated till ‘39. Johnny graduated in ‘49. So he was not in college. Maybe he went on the experiment in international living that summer. I remember now: He returned to Chicago and finished high school.
Weiner:Was this the end of your year?
Compton:No, it was the Easter vacation, the long vacation. We had a wonderful time staying at these hostels. We cooked our own food, and we’d make enough in the morning at breakfast to take for our luncheon. And then we could stop where we saw a beautiful view and wanted to stay. We had many interesting, human experiences. For instance, we were having our sandwiches at a beautiful place over-looking the lakes of Kilarney, and someone came by and got rather huffy. He saw our English car, and he didn’t like the English. And of course you don’t go on other people’s property as much there as you do here. But anyway we weren’t doing any damage. As soon as he discovered we were Americans he just melted and asked us into his cottage, which was quite a little way from there. His wife gave us buttermilk and kettle bread. He was so eager to talk with us about America. And his little wife very quietly said, “I know America is a very large place, but you wouldn’t know where Youngstown, O/ho/ is (instead of Ohio), would you?” And I said, “I certainly do. I was born not 20 miles from Youngstown.” Well, she just couldn’t believe that. And they could have asked any other 20 people, and they could not have told her where Youngstown, O/Ho was. Well, her sister’s husband was with the Youngstown Sheet and Steel. So we took pictures of this family –- the sons, the father and the mother –- and then I sent them to the Youngstown sister. So it was just one of those pleasant human incidents. It was a wonderful trip, and I was always glad that I persevered and did it. I might have just said, “Well, if you can’t go, we’ll just have to give it up and do something else.”
Weiner:In this case the reason he couldn’t go was because there were two…
Compton:Because he was coming back, and he spent a whole month with those two students. I only remember one -– Tom Osgood. He was another of his students. He has lately been dean over at the graduate school at Michigan State at East Lansing. He’s a Scotsman.
Weiner:And Osgood was where at the time?
Compton:The University of Chicago.
Weiner:How did they get over?
Compton:They came on Commonwealth fellowships.
Weiner:I see. To spend some time with him.
Compton:A year. Well, they stayed on the second year -- Tom did. And then I introduced him to a lovely girl on the North Shore, and he married her.
Weiner:You remember during this period there was a large conference held in London in ‘34. I think the title was International Conference of Physics. There were papers that were presented by just about everyone, including papers on cosmic rays.
Compton:Who were some of them?
Weiner:Millikan for one, Compton; Carl Anderson had a paper on the program but he wasn’t there; I think Madame Curie was there; there was a discussion on radioactivity, of the new finding of transmutation. But offhand you don’t recall the conference? You may not have gone down. You were at Oxford. It would have meant you would have had to go into London.
Compton:Well, we were down several times. We stayed with the Braggs for one of these occasions. [On reading this type-script I do remember the meeting and Professor Millikan’s paper.]
Weiner:Bragg at the time was in Manchester, I think.
Compton:Well, then we just saw them. It was another time we stayed at the Braggs. Of course he took over his father’s post. That was interesting, why he did that. He resigned his Cavendish professorship to go down to the Royal Institution to take that. And, as far as I can find out, he just was feeling so badly that the institution that his father had spent so many years building up was deteriorating so. He was always so thoughtful, especially about his father. I remember on one occasion we were having a picture taken at one of these congresses, and his father was standing near a tall person; and Willie saw to it that Father stood someplace else. He didn’t want Father looking too short there. He was a very wonderful person. We had him come to St. Louis several times. He gave one of the great lectures here, I thought, on this DNA.
Weiner:We were talking about Oxford and about the trip to Ireland, which lasted through the long Easter vacation, a couple of weeks.
Compton:About nine days.
Weiner:And so in a sense you brought some of your environment with you. Some of the graduate students came over.
Compton:They didn’t come over because of Arthur.
Weiner:Oh, they came over on Commonwealth fellowships.
Compton:Oh, I see, the other way. I thought you were thinking of Thornton Page. Oh, yes, some students came over especially to work with Arthur, and that’s the reason he felt he had to be there. So he paid his way back to be there on his own out of the family budget, to come back to Chicago and then return again for his work at Oxford. But he did give up the holiday.
Weiner:And he returned to Chicago in the midst of this year?
Compton:Well, this was the long vacation at Oxford. So he returned for that and stayed on. He came back a couple of weeks late to Oxford. I think he spent almost a month with them, and they probably saw more of each other and had more communication than they would have had the time been longer and been broken up.
Weiner:I see. And at Oxford what were his responsibilities?
Compton:I don’t remember.
Weiner:It wasn’t a question, though, of taking a regular class.
Compton:Giving a course of lectures.
Weiner:Well, then, we probably even have notes for those during that period. But what about research? He was also doing research during this period, continuing his work. Do you remember who his closest associates were at Oxford. He did, I guess, come in contact with Lindemann.
Compton:Yes, yes. Lindemann’s name later became Lord…
Compton:Yes, with Lindemann, and Egerton, of course, was one of our very good friends, and we’ve kept up our Egerton contacts. We were both in India -- Kashmir and New Delhi at the same time. We had very interesting times, and then back in London. So we have, I suppose surprisingly, kept up certain of these. Then I see Lady Egerton. I saw her last summer in London. If I go this time, I will give her a ring to see if she is there. And Lady Darwin now lives in London. Her only daughter, Mrs. Littleton, lives outside of Philadelphia.
Weiner:I guess Sir William Beveridge was master of one of the colleges, but he wasn’t in science.
Compton:Oh, we had the wonderful master at Balliol. Of course, Arthur was connected with the college, which is Balliol, in Oxford. That was Lindsay. He was a great friend. And Arthur really converted him to science, so to speak. It was really very interesting. I don’t know whether he’s written that up anyplace. Lindsay and his wife were saying how inhuman –- “science is just so cold and matter of fact. And the development of motor cars, etc. You don’t walk through the beautiful countryside and enjoy the trees and the birds and the flowers, but you go down the hard highway in a powerful motor car.”
Weiner:This is a similar discussion to the one held later in India.
Compton:Maybe Arthur just quoted that, because that was what he taught then. And later Lindsay and we became fast friends. Then when we went back our first time to visit after we’d been in Oxford, maybe three years later when Lindsay was still master of Balliol, he took Arthur in his study and showed him a manuscript that he had just finished wherein he acknowledged that science was the force in the world now that was going to lead us. It was really just sort of a reversal, a roundabout. I would like to see that again. But there was a very nice relationship there. Since then we’ve gone back, but we don’t know as many people. Norrington had been with the Oxford University Press, and we met him in the early years; and the last time I heard he was head of Trinity in Oxford, which is the campus right next to Balliol.
Weiner:During the 1934-35 year at Oxford, other than the trip that you took to Ireland, did you both go to other places in Europe before you returned to the United States?
Compton:Yes. We had a trip down to Italy. Wasn’t there something else? Arthur went down to speak at Venice while we were there, and he spoke in a great palazzo. Oh, it was most beautiful. And I don’t think that is any place here: ‘34-‘35. He spoke also…What’s the special society in Italy?
Weiner:Peale Accademia dei Lincei.
Compton:Yes, he spoke there to a very distinguished audience, and was very well received. Oh, here: Congress of Electro-Radio Biology, 1934. Yes, indeed.
Weiner:I see. And that was in Venice.
Compton:Yes. And son Arthur went with him.
Weiner:And did you?
Compton:No. And Arthur then went back to the United States and finished up his high school work in Chicago. Now I’m fitting it in right.
Weiner:That year was also the year of the C.R.B. Foundation lectures in Brussels.
Compton:Yes. And we had Christmas down at the old mill on the French border. These people (the Shailers) were diamond miners, (Africa) Americans. That’s when they had their first real skiing experience.
Weiner:Let me then get you back to this country after that year abroad.
Compton:More things happened that year than I remember.
Weiner:There were several lectures. Well, there was the London conference; there were the C.R.B. Foundation lectures; there was the Venice meeting.
Compton:The lecture at the Electro-Radio-Biological Congress…
Weiner:I don’t know the exact meaning of that, but it sounds as though it might be related to this interest in the therapeutic use of radiation. And I’m curious about that. This was an interest of his in the ‘30s. I’m assuming that it was used for cancer and other research.
Compton:That’s what Arthur said, you know: if out of the work with atomic energy, there could come something like a cure for cancer -- then he’d feel everything was well justified. Now you were going to ask something else.
Weiner:I was going to ask how his interest in the use of radiation for those purposes started.
Compton:It started at Wooster, where he began taking x-ray pictures of hands and that part of it -- I mean there were always these little back things -- because his professor of chemistry was interested in it. Then he was also on the National Cancer Advisory Council for eight or nine years, and he and James Conant were the two non-medical people on the National Cancer Advisory Council -- one a physicist and one a chemist. I’ve heard certain doctors say who were at the meetings which were down in Bethesda that, curiously enough, they often found the answers to their questions of dosage and so forth (Arthur had worked out the dosage for x-rays for them) and found their answer in techniques and so forth from these men, who knew them from their laboratories, which they as medical people didn’t happen to know. This was just second nature. Whenever the question came, they could give what they felt was a solution. So that was an interesting experience. To keep them on a second term, they must have earned their salt.
Weiner:Did he do research on it or was he a consultant in the sense of an advisor?
Compton:I think it was advisory, but I wouldn’t be surprised that anything that would come up he would try out if it were necessary. I couldn’t cite you any instances.
Weiner:But do you know of any treatment of cancer patients at Chicago that he was involved in?
Compton:Well, I know the dosage thing he helped with. Then he also helped when they were having explosions in the operating room. He spied and suggested one of the things. I think that was just in line with the way they said that his observing powers were such that things that would not occur to someone else, he would pick up. It was a fountain pen in the surgeon’s pocket. That’s one thing I remember. Don’t quote me. But, at any rate, it was just some simple thing and then something else like the soles on his shoes or something. But anyway the suggestions he gave evidently were put into force and seemed to help.
Weiner:This went on through the ‘30s then. I find that in 1935 he turned to the subject of x-rays.
Compton:Well, that was the revision of his book that he did in ‘26, and it’s from this book that I’m still getting checks. At that time, generous as he always was to a fault, when Sam Allison helped him on this, he made the arrangement to give him a larger amount of the payment -- just, you know, thanking him. So he gets more than we do. I mean Helen, his wife, gets more than I do. But they were lacking one of 300 being sold this last year. Some went to England and others went to Canada, and the domestic ones were 138 or something like that. Isn’t that amazing? They cost $22.50.
Weiner:Yes. Well, then it’s still widely used.
Compton:It’s still a classic they tell me.
Weiner:And so many copies are already in circulation.
Compton:Yes, it’s still a classic evidently.
Weiner:When did he first come in contact with Sam Allison? When did this relationship start? Allison was his student then, I guess, at Chicago. I’m not sure.
Compton:Sam came into the picture when they brought him back. He had been in Chicago. But then when they brought him back from Harvard, or was it Columbia, for the atomic project, he didn’t want to come at that time.
Weiner:Allison writes something about it here.
Compton:Is that your copy or mine?
Compton:You don’t have Alexander Langsdorf, Jr’s, do you?
Compton:Oh, it’s great.
Weiner:Well, at that time Allison must have been on the faculty because he refers to himself as a “younger colleague.” So by the ‘30s he was on the faculty.
Compton:A colleague on the faculty, yes -- with his teaching there, I guess.
Weiner:You mentioned earlier some of the graduate students connected with the department at Chicago -- Andrew and Hilberry.
Compton:Norman Hilberry, and Ernest Wollan. He’s been in the later years at Oak Ridge, just retiring from Oak Ridge.
Weiner:And then of course Luis Alvarez earlier.
Weiner:There were a number of other people on the faculty, though, by the late ‘30s. The department had changed some, when Michelson had died.
Compton:Well, then Henry Gale became chairman of the department, Henry Gordon Gale. And when did Arthur become the chairman?
Weiner:I think in 1940.
Compton:The National Cancer Advisory Council, 1937 to 1944; chairman of department 1940, it says here; and dean of physical sciences.
Weiner:During this period you mentioned that there were a number of people who were brought over by him to the department. Pierre Auger you mentioned, and there was another man.
Compton:Oh, yes. He’s now head, had been head of the department – Willie Zachariasen. We brought him over. And he and his wife were absolutely the two youngest people I’ve ever seen. They were so immature and so young. Also Joyce Bearden, who became head of the department over here at Johns Hopkins, was another of his students.
Weiner:There was a man by the name of Regener.
Compton:Victor Regener. He’s now out in Albuquerque.
Weiner:Is he at the University of New Mexico?
Weiner:This time, though, the intention was apparently to build up a very strong physics department, and this had been taking place during the ‘30s. What about his own research interests? Did they change very much after the cosmic ray world expedition, which was over in about 1934? And then there was the year in Oxford. After that do you recall any real transition, in terms of his own interests and activities?
Compton:I suppose there was a broadening of interests because greater and greater pressures were being put upon him and demands were being put upon him in different directions -- Regent of the Smithsonian, for instance. He was Regent the longest time of any lay person, so I’m told. Most of them are government people. Mr. Fleming, who died last year, was the only one I think who was on longer than he in Washington. He was a banker from there. Then Arthur saw to it that Greenewalt got appointed on that. There was a man who died who was in aeronautical engineering at MIT, not Weisner, but something else almost like that. It wasn’t Jerry Weisner -- I know Jerry. It begins with “W”. A fine person. I see his wife occasionally. I liked them very much.
Weiner:But anyway the involvement then from, say, 1935 on, the time you got back from Oxford, had to do with developing…
Compton:Well, then he went into this tumor institute at Chicago. You see, that cancer and tumor area -- he could see that that was an area where there was need for further development. So I went on the board and he went on the men’s. He was chairman of the board for a while.
Weiner:Was this independent of the University?
Compton:Oh, yes, that was independent. They brought over a man from France, and then the other man, Dr. Max Cutler, was our long-time friend who lives in California now. There was a general widening. And then he did writing in those periods, too, you see.
Weiner:The writing started to take on a different character, though, and to deal with the philosophical implications of science.
Compton:Yes, the freedom of man; the Walker Ames visiting professorship out at the University of Washington (Seattle) and the first Garvin lecture -- all of those, yes. That’s true.
Weiner:Certain things were happening in the field of cosmic rays in the ‘30s, discoveries that brought a lot of attention to cosmic rays on the part of people who weren’t in the field. There was the discovery of the positron and Anderson’s later discovery of what was called the mesotron. Do you recall anything about the reaction to these events or whether there was considerable discussion?
Compton:Wasn’t it at a Physical Society meeting in New York when Darwin tried his best to steer the physicists off the physical problems, saying “Now everything’s been found out?” That was just before the positron. They’d better go into biology and something else. I remember Arthur contesting it right away. He said, “Well, Darwin, I am certain there are things just around the corner.” But Darwin was really in earnest about it. I wonder if anybody remembers that meeting.
Weiner:Karl Darrow would.
Compton:Karl Darrow would remember.
Weiner:I’ll ask him.
Compton:Is Karl just as keen as ever?
Weiner:Oh, yes. I had a letter from him the other day. He would know about that meeting. There were a number of people in that period who were predicting that there would be greater interest in biology than in physics.
Compton:Oh, yes. It was the Rockefeller Foundation who tried to get my husband to change.
Weiner:How did that come about?
Compton:Well, they said that they would see to it that he got all the funds he needed if he would go over into it or words to that effect -- if he would go into that, because they thought that he would do well. Evidently they thought he had done well in the other. But he wasn’t going to change horses.
Weiner:Well, by 1939 things had pretty well come along in the field of cosmic rays.
Compton:That’s when he got busy trying to get the big conference to come over here. That’s when Heisenberg came and lived at our house.
Weiner:I see. For how long was this?
Compton:Well, he stayed on practically the quarter to give lectures. Three months I think he was there. Because, you see, we lived within three minutes of the campus right there on Woodlawn Avenue, the fifth house down. He enjoyed his stay very much. That was when Arthur tried to get him to stay on and he quite frankly said he thought a war was coming and he felt he would be needed.
Weiner:Who else was at the conference that you remember? You mentioned that people came from all over the world. Anyone else from Europe? I can track them down.
Compton:Well, there were names that I can’t remember from Germany. I remember the person, very tall, fine-looking person whose name I am trying to search for, but alas, it doesn’t come.
Weiner:Were there any other trips to Europe between the Oxford visit in 1934-35, any trips after that prior to the beginning of the war?
Compton:Well, wouldn’t we have been there on some cosmic ray mission?
Weiner:Well, I was wondering about that. We’ll have to check the notebooks.
Compton:Check on that, would you?
Weiner:Alden Sibley compiled some cosmic ray notes in England and on an ocean voyage. Were you with him then?
Compton:Oh, no. That was when he was attending Arthur’s lectures, and then after that he came back to the United States by ship around the Cape of Good Hope and did the recordings.
Weiner:There were plans in 1935 for a cosmic ray survey on the Pacific Ocean, but he didn’t go on that. Is that right?
Compton:I don’t know anything about that, I’m afraid.
Weiner:That covers that period. Apparently that was a period of settling in. You had a very intense period of traveling from 1926 on.
Compton:Just always. Of course, I always told Arthur that I could be ready to go anyplace if he’d just give me a good full round hour.
Weiner:Apparently sometimes you didn’t get that much. But it appears that from 1935 on it was relatively quiet as far as traveling around, at least from what I can make out.
Compton:He was busy doing this revision of the book. Then The Freedom of Man came out. You know, there are more people asking for that now. Isn’t this amazing? They’ve written to me and they’re going to republish it. Then the other one, The Human Meaning of Science -- both of those. And you’d be interested to know that this Garvin lecture that he gave on “God and Immortality” at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was one that Julian Huxley read every word and every line of and wrote him a letter. I wish we could find that. Oh, that was a peach. He took verse and line and said what he thought on those things. Really, it was one of those letters that would be really something.
Weiner:Well, I hope you find it.
Compton:All right. Well, we kept seeing Julian in London. We were in India standing in line to go up to Kashmir about 12, 14 years ago when we turned around and who was right back to us in line but Julian. We were both going up to Srinagar. He and Arthur had a wonderful talk.
Weiner:There are a number of things that begin in 1940 with the whole development of the war period. I think maybe we shouldn’t get into that now.
Compton:And that South American cosmic ray expedition. That was really a big one. [2 trips to South American 10 years apart.]
Weiner:Oh, were you or that?
Compton:Oh, my, yes.
Weiner:Let’s hear about that, because what I was going to do was suggest that we take things up to the point of 1940-41 and call it quits after that.
Compton:That’s the one I was telling you about, this one to Peru. That’s part of it. And of course we went to Brazil, and we put up balloons in Sao Paulo, back of Sao Paulo in the coffee plantations. I wonder if ever been written up. “Ernie” Wollan would know about that. Hughes, who died, was with us on that. A.H.C. put on a mathematical congress in Rio. That was what he was asked to come down for. An amusing thing happened. Our State Department should have told our ambassador that we were coming down. If they did, it was just an inter-office thing and it hadn’t sunk in. The ambassador hadn’t caught it. Oh dear, if I could think of the name. He was the ambassador from Brazil to the United States, a very well-known person. He learned from the scientific people that Arthur was coming down to put on this congress and that he had with him the Hilberrys and Wollan and Hughes and Jesse. They were all on that expedition. And so he started getting up a reception for Dr. Compton and invited our ambassador. Here he knew who Arthur Compton was, but our ambassador said, “Compton? Who in the hell is Compton?” And the Brazilian had the greatest fun telling that story in Washington of our ambassador.
Weiner:When was this?
Compton:That was in ‘41.
Weiner:Oh, as late at that.
Compton:That was it. But the interesting thing was the way they put up these balloons back of the coffee plantation. The idea was that some of the balloons, as in the other balloon experiments, would be blown up to such an extent that they would burst at certain altitudes and then would allow the balloon the instrument in it to come gently down and then land in the coffee trees. That would be another help. Of course people said, “You’ll never get your instrument back. You’ll never get the recordings back.” Arthur said, “Well, we’ll offer a reward.” They said, “That’s all very good, but you still won’t get them back.” Well, then somebody came up -- I don’t know who -- with a bright idea: “We’ll offer them a medal in addition to the reward.” And they did, and they got everyone back.”
Weiner:Was there a ceremony presenting these medals?
Compton:I don’t know about that. But there was a very interesting man who helped us down there, Paulos Pompeii, and he was a student of Arthur’s. He was a student at the University of Chicago. He and his wife came up.
Weiner:By that time wasn’t Mr. Compton already involved in the special committee to look into the feasibility of atomic energy for war purposes?
Compton:Oh, yes. Yes, he was chairman of the National Academy committee to evaluate what the potential or the probabilities of it were.
Weiner:And that was ‘41.
Compton:You know, I think Shankland brings these things out much better than anybody has to date.
What I'd like to do now, since we've gone a long time today, is to think very briefly if there’s anything that you really want to cover, a general theme that we might have missed; and then to end on this note with your characterization of the thing that you think gave your husband most personal satisfaction in his career, the thing that was most rewarding to him in terms of the sense of personal satisfaction and personal achievement. Is it possible to pinpoint it to a particular event or series of events?
Compton:I don’t know that I could — not to a particular event. But the working out of the planning for the future education at Washington University. It was a challenge, and I believe he felt that it was a kind of fulfillment in at least what he was able to do in the time he was there.
Weiner:I see. We haven’t touched on that at all, and I think perhaps we shouldn't, as from 1941 onward represents a new period. But anyway you feel that in the total career, that that had a special kind of meaning.
Compton:Well, when you ask it now, that just comes to me. That's the response that that comes now. In thinking it over, maybe I would discover something else that might be latent that I don’t think of now. I wouldn't know. I’m going to make a little note of that just for the fun of it, because some time I might be thinking about that, meditating on something that might just strike the point.
Weiner:There can be several answers, of course.
Compton:Well, of course. I should think so. There might have been. We were very close as person to person, as husband and wife, and always working together on all of these things and having him talk about everything, just normally to talk it over. And that's the reason I was cleared for the atomic project. That was very amusing. But sometimes being very close to people, you’re not sensitive enough to some of the things that other people would be sensitive to it they were involved. Because we were just so much of one piece, so to speak. Let's see, how did you phrase that? What single...
Weiner:What single event or series of events gave him the most personal satisfaction in the sense of personal achievement? And I would really ask the same question of you now?
Compton:What single event or events did give A.H. personal — what?
Weiner:Satisfaction or a sense of achievement, in a personal sense. Perhaps it's too general, limiting it to the professional sphere. Because raising a fine family is in a sense a personal achievement, too.
Compton:Yes. That reminds me of something else because I remember when we had reason to lose several of our young progeny at birth and one later. I remember his saying how he would be willing to have given several years of his life to have saved that young bit of humanity, which ties in with your question.
Weiner:Yes, these questions are hard to answer.
Compton:Of course people would often look (I mean faculty people) and say, “Oh, things have always gone beautifully for you. You’ve always traveled with your husband. Things have always been just perfect.” Well, you see, the fact of the family -- we were greatly disappointed, because out of five we had only two. There would have been two daughters, but that seemed to have been in the cards. Back in that time, 50 some years ago, they didn’t know about Rh negative and such.
Weiner:And the two boys…
Compton:They’re something to be proud of. Yes, they are indeed.
Weiner:I think you can reflect, too, on a very full and productive life as Mrs. Compton and in your own right, too, as an individual in the things that you’ve done.
Compton:Fanny Butcher in Chicago was just trying always to get me to write something when I’d see her, oh, just occasionally. I’d say, “I’m not a writer. I’ve never had the discipline of writing or trying to write. And besides my husband was my career.” And she said, “That’s your subject.”
Weiner:It was more than that, though. That’s a wonderful title, but I don’t know if it’s altogether true, because you’ve had two careers -- your own and that.
Compton:I said that. “My husband was my career.” And of course that’s true. I didn’t do like Ada Comstock. You see, her father urged her to stay on as president there and wanted her to have a career as a woman. I’d say, “My career was my husband. And if I helped him, that was what I wanted to do.”
You’ve done quite a few things on your own too.
The Volta Conference was at Como-Pavia-Roma from 11-20 September 1927; and the Solvay Congress in Brussels from 24-29 October 1927.
The Biographical Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society states that A. H. Compton was elected to membership in 1925. The Biographical Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences list the date as 1927.
This coudl be Hiram Bingham [no-someone else]
"Two capable mountaineers, Carpe and Koven, lost their lives on a glacier on the side of mighty Mount McKinley." The Cosmos of Arthur Holly Compton, p. 161.
Millikan went to Caltech in 1921.
The distinguished foreign guests who had been officially invited by the American Association for the Advancement of Science were: F.W. Aston of Cambridge, England, J. Bjerknes of Bergen, Norway, Niels Bohr of Copenhagen, J.D. Cockcroft of Cambridge, Lipot Fejer of Budapest, Enrico Fermi of Rome and Tullio Levi-Civita of Rome.
Some students were Page, Sibley, Getting, and George McGhee.
1934-35, series of eight lectures at Oxford on X-rays and twelve lectures on cosmic rays (Notebook I. I.)
September 10, 1934.
A.H. Compton on Board of Chicago Tumor Institute, Betty M. Compton on Women's Board of the Chicago Tumor Institute
Foreign visitors to First International Symposium on Cosmic Rays at the University of Chicago included Clay, Banos, Vallarta, Auger, Bothe, Heisenberg, Rossi.