Department News

Remembering Compton’s Discovery – 100 years later

In 1920, Arthur Holly Compton was appointed Wayman Crow Professor of Physics and head of the department of physics at Washington University in St. Louis. During that time, Compton did the experimental work that resulted in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927. His discovery, known as the “Compton effect” or “Compton scattering”, demonstrated the particle concept of electromagnetic radiation. Dennis Hallahan, MD, FASTRO, the Elizabeth H. and James S. McDonnell III Distinguished Professor of Medicine, and Chairman, Department of Radiation Oncology at Washington University School of Medicine states “During his tenure at Washington University, Compton discovered the mechanisms by which x-rays interact with biological tissues, including cancer. Compton scatter is one of the primary reasons why radiation therapy is effective at curing cancer.” According to an article in Cancer Network, “the Compton effect is the most important photon-tissue interaction for the treatment of cancer. In this case, a photon collides with a “free electron,” ie, one that is not tightly bound to the atom. Unlike the photoelectric effect, in the Compton interaction both the photon and electron are scattered.”1 Geoffrey Hugo, PhD, Professor of Radiation Oncology and Vice Chair of Medical Physics states, “Compton’s discoveries related to the scattering properties of x-rays are key to many of our modern medical technologies – including radiographic imaging, computed tomography, and radiation therapy. Even very new technologies such as photon counting computed tomography rely on this fundamental work.”

After World War II, Compton returned to Washington University and was inaugurated as the university’s ninth chancellor, a post which he held until 1954.

1 “Principles of Radiation Therapy” by Gazda & Coia, 6/2/2007, cancer network