Cover photo for Dr. Robert N. Compton's Obituary
Dr. Robert N. Compton Profile Photo
Dr. Robert 'Bob' N. Compton

Dr. Robert N. Compton

Oak Ridge

Dr. Robert (Bob) Norman Compton was born in Metropolis, Illinois, to Robert Wilson and Wava Jennett (Lambert) Compton. He passed away peacefully on February 27, surrounded by family, after a short battle with brain cancer.  

As a child in 1943, Bob moved with his family moved to Oak Ridge, where his father worked at Y-12 during the Manhattan Project during World War II.   He was interested in science and how things worked from a young age and was one of those kids who would take apart a radio to see how it worked.  Bob graduated from Oak Ridge High School in 1956, where he played basketball and ran track, and traveled throughout east Tennessee giving Tesla coil demonstrations to teach others about physics and electronics.  

Bob earned a B.A. in physics from Berea College in 1960, where he met fellow student Milinda (Byrd) and they married in 1961.  He received an M.S. in physics from the University of Florida in 1962, and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Tennessee in 1966.  Bob returned to Oak Ridge to work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) during summers and joined as a permanent scientist after completing his Ph.D.  For much of his 30-year career at ORNL, Bob served as a group leader in molecular physics in the Health Sciences Research Division.  After retiring from the lab, he had a 19-year career as Professor of Physics and Zeigler Professor of Chemistry at the University of Tennessee until retiring in 2015.  He was also co-founder of Comstock, Inc., a scientific instrument company.  Since retiring from UT, Bob published two books, one on Laser Experiments and another on Raman Spectroscopy Under Liquid Nitrogen.   In fall 2023, he completed the second edition of Laser Experiments.  

Dr. Compton was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, and the Optical Society of America.   He was honored in 1991 with the J.W. Beams Award by the American Physical Society and in 1995 with the Meggars Award by the Optical Society of America, presented annually to recognize outstanding work in spectroscopy.  Compton was named Corporate Fellow at ORNL in 1986 and a Senior Corporate Fellow in 1995. 

For over half a century, Bob was a celebrated experimentalist and inspirational leader and teacher in the fields of physics and chemistry. He attributed his longevity in the field to his desire to understand the physical world. His work at ORNL focused on experimental studies in atomic and molecular physics, particularly developments in the field of nonlinear laser spectroscopy and the physics of negative ions. He was known for his willingness to collaborate on research projects and for his wide network of contacts across an interdisciplinary scientific community.  He had a tremendous passion for science and his desire for understanding was contagious.   Bob advised more than 40 graduate students and post-doctoral scientists, and he was extremely proud of their accomplishments.  

His research took him and his family across the world, including as a Visiting Professor at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, the University of Paris, and the FOM Institute in Amsterdam. In 2001, he was an Erskine Fellow at the University of Christchurch, New Zealand.  He and Milinda traveled several times to scientific meetings in Greece and throughout Europe.  

Bob was also an active member of the Oak Ridge community, coaching t-ball, basketball and soccer.  During the 1970s, he was involved in the Citizens Council for Clinch River Planning (CCCRP); this group’s foresight protected the scenic beauty of the Oak Ridge Marina, now one of the top three rowing courses in the US.  In recent years, Bob was very involved in the Friends of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and was a frequent speaker on a wide range of topics including lasers, the universe, and the science and history of the Manhattan Project.  

Bob is survived by his wife of 62 years, Margaret Milinda (Byrd) Compton, along with children Jana Compton (Steve Perakis) of Corvallis, Oregon, Derek Compton (Stacy) of Lake Stevens, Washington, Amy Horner (Rick) of Boise, Idaho, and Anne Wilkerson (Scott) of Denver, Colorado.  He also leaves seven grandchildren: Ashlee (Compton) Hagen, Lane Compton, Sophia Perakis, Liam Wilkerson, and Richard, Maddie and Wava Horner.  His grandchildren were his pride and joy, and he loved hearing about their interests and passions.  Bob is also survived by his sister Susan Compton Carpenter (Joe), niece Keri Carpenter and nephew Timothy Carpenter, and brothers-in-law Alan Byrd (Joann, deceased), Gary Byrd (Wanda), and Randal Byrd (Stephanie) of Morganton, North Carolina and Colon Byrd (Markly) of Georgia.  

Bob was incredibly thankful to be able to attend Berea College, and felt he might not have been able to pursue his career without that opportunity.  In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in his name to Berea College (  

A reception will be held at Mott-McKamey funeral home on Saturday, March 2, 2024 from 2-3 pm. 


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