• Karl Taylor Compton

    Photo courtesy of the MIT Museum

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  • President Hockfield presents the Karl Taylor Compton Prize to Jessica Hamrick, president of the Student Information Processing Board, who accepted the award on behalf of SIPB.

    Photo: Justin Knight

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  • MIT President Susan Hockfield and 2010 Karl Taylor Compton Prize winners Michael Bennie '10, left, and graduate student Kevin McComber.

    Photo: Justin Knight

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The People Behind the Awards: Karl Taylor Compton

A look at some of MIT's most influential figures and the Institute awards that honor them.


The MIT Awards Convocation honors students, faculty, staff and community members who have made outstanding contributions to the shared life of the Institute. The 30 awards given at the convocation are named for some of MIT’s most influential figures. In honor of MIT’s 150th anniversary, “The People Behind the Awards” series will showcase an award’s namesake.

The Compton Prizes are given in memory of Dr. Karl Taylor Compton, MIT's president from 1930 to 1949, and chairman of the MIT Corporation from 1949 to 1954. They are the highest awards presented by the Institute to students and student organizations in recognition of excellent achievements in citizenship and devotion to the welfare of MIT. They reflect outstanding contributions to the MIT community as a whole, sustained over a significant number of years.

Compton was a prominent physicist and MIT’s ninth president. His name can still be heard around the Institute on a daily basis from the Compton Lecture Series to the Compton Gallery. Although Compton held the presidency during periods of great turmoil — the Great Depression and the onset of World War II — his clear vision and strong leadership transformed the Institute into one of the world’s leading research universities, and in so doing strengthened the nation.

Known for his generous public spirit, Compton gave scientific advice at the highest levels of government. In 1933, President Roosevelt asked Compton to chair the new Scientific Advisory Board. During World War II, he was one of a group of advisors assembled by Vannevar Bush, the former dean of the School of Engineering at MIT who was head of Roosevelt’s Office of Scientific Research and Development. As part of the war effort, Compton helped oversee the development of radar in MIT’s Radiation Lab. He received the highest civilian honor of the U.S. Army, the Medal for Merit, for his role in shortening the war. And Compton’s advice didn’t stop at the national level — he even advised the mayor of Boston, James Michael Curley, on the benefits of using salt instead of flamethrowers to help melt snow in the city.

Compton was noted throughout his life for his uncompromising integrity and for setting high goals and achieving them. The Karl Taylor Compton Prize honors this legacy.

To learn more about the Awards Convocation, and to nominate a student or student group for the Karl Taylor Compton Prize, go to the MIT Awards Convocation website. Nominations for the MIT Awards Convocation, including the Karl Taylor Compton Prize, are being accepted through Friday, March 18. The 2011 MIT Awards Convocation is Tuesday, May 3, at 4 p.m. in 10-250.


Topics: Awards, honors and fellowships, Faculty, History of MIT, MIT150, Staff, Students

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