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Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Office of the Chair of the Corporation, records of Karl T. Compton

Identifier: AC-0065

  • Staff Only
  • No requestable containers

Scope and Contents

The Office of the Chair of the Corporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), records of Karl Compton came to the MIT Institute Archives with the Compton-Killian presidential papers (AC 4).

This corporation collection is arranged in three series: 1949-1950, 1951-1952, and 1953-1954. Within this chronological order, material was arranged alphabetically by either the subject or the surname of the correspondent.

Although Karl Compton assumed the chairship of the federal Research and Development Board (Armed Forces) as well as the MIT Corporation chairship when he resigned the MIT presidency in 1948, there is very little material in this collection pertaining directly to the R & D Board, which was based in Washington, D.C. The files contain, for the most part, the correspondence carried on by a past president of MIT, a scientist, and a public personality. This record of everyday routine is supplemented by material related to Compton's personal interests. Approximately half of the collection consists of correspondence with conservationists, alumni, people seeking speakers or recommendations or desiring the opinion of a physicist.

The collection includes considerable correspondence connected with his fund raising activities for MIT, including the 1949-1950 Leadership Campaign. There is correspondence with companies including International Nickel, Dupont, General Electric, and Johnson and Johnson, and with individuals including John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Alfred P. Sloan. Compton was also involved in the negotiations and administration of the gifts of the Kresge Foundation, which gave funds for the Chapel and Kresge Auditorium, and the Dorrance family, who funded the Dorrance Building. Throughout the collection are materials related to his travels as a representative of the Institute and the reception of Institute guests.

In 1949, a search was undertaken for a new dean of architecture as a replacement for William W. Wurster. Compton, as chair of the Corporation, was chair of the Executive Committee, which had the final approval of Wurster's successor. There is a small amount of material related to this search containing information on many of the most well-known architects in the country.

As a scientist and educator, Compton received many invitations to speak from such institutions as Radcliffe College, the General Motors Institute, the Instrument Society of America, and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. Although this aspect of his public life is extremely well documented, few of the speeches themselves are found in this collection. There are notes and rough drafts, but a more complete collection of his lectures and addresses are in Compton's personal papers (MC 416) and the MIT Museum's Compton speech file.

Perhaps ten percent of the material in this collection applies directly to the period of the 1950s, and there is a significant amount of background material that is characteristic of those post-war years. Compton was frequently consulted on the subject of atomic energy. He was asked to defend his stand on the necessity of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to comment on different peace-keeping schemes. The small amount of correspondence relating to physics is, unfortunately, routine; there is some correspondence from such leading physicists as Robert Millikan and J. Robert Oppenheimer but most of it does not concern physics. There are a few letters related to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Un-American Activities hearings, mainly from scientific figures or World War II acquaintances, requesting recommendations or character references. There is little material about the various foundations for which he served as a trustee. There are many inquiries from all kinds of associations requesting sponsorship, money, and help. The "Aid Refugee Chinese Intellectualists, Inc." was typical of the sort of organization that contacted Compton and received his help. This collection has some value for Compton scholars, for while it contains few family letters, he did not use obvious form letters in his acceptances, rejections, and simple replies to his everyday correspondence. The only other real research strengths of this collection lie in the wealth of administrative detail and the 1950s-related background material.


  • Creation: 1948 - 1954


Conditions Governing Access

This collection must be reviewed to identify any restricted material before access can be granted. Please submit your requests at least ten business days before your desired visit to allow time for this review. An archivist will respond within five business days to let you know whether your requested material is open. For complete information on this policy, see our Statement on Accessing Institute Records.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.

Historical Note

The office of the chair of the Corporation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was first held by Samuel W. Stratton, eighth president of the Institute (1923-1930), from 1930 to his death in 1931. Karl Taylor Compton, second chair of the Corporation, took office in 1948, immediately upon his resignation from the MIT presidency, and served until his death in 1954.

Samuel Stratton, who held the office for only a year, did not define the duties of the chair. When Karl Compton became chair of the Corporation, the office had been vacant for some time. Thus he had an opportunity to clarify his areas of responsibility. During the five years he was chair he was engaged in fund raising during MIT's Leadership Campaign, 1949-1950. Compton participated in contacting industrial leaders who donated much of the total $20 million raised; he asked them to regard an investment in education as an investment in their corporate future. Compton traveled extensively as a representative of the Institute, visiting alumni clubs, naval bases, and technological centers all over the world. Compton became chair of the Corporation during the Cold War era. Atomic energy and its uses dominated much of the scientific, political, and social discussion of the day. As a physicist and war scientist, he was often consulted by leaders in industry, politics, and the private sector about atomic energy and, in particular, the atomic bomb. At various times he also served as a trustee to the Ford, Rockefeller, and Sloan Foundations. He published numerous articles and was a frequent speaker.


2 Cubic Feet (6 manuscript boxes)

Language of Materials


Physical Location

Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Processing Information note

Some collection descriptions are based on legacy data and may be incomplete or contain inaccuracies. Description may change pending verification. Please contact the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections if you notice any errors or discrepancies.

Preliminary Inventory to the Records of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the Chairman of the Corporation
Records of Karl T. Compton, 1948-1954
Ready For Review
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2021 July 5: Edited by Lana Mason for compliance with DACS single-level optimum requirements and to remove aggrandizing terms in the biographical and scope and content notes description.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139-4307 US