John Compton, charter faculty member of Vanderbilt philosophy department, has died

John J. Compton (Vanderbilt University)

John J. Compton, who taught philosophy at Vanderbilt University for more than four decades, died in hospice care Jan. 18. He was 85.

Compton joined the philosophy department in 1952, the year it was founded as an independent department at Vanderbilt. He served as department chair from 1967 to 1973 and from 1994 to 1995 and as acting chair on five other occasions.

“The most exciting thing in life is to try to enhance our understanding of the human condition,” Compton told the Vanderbilt Register in 1992. “The job of a philosopher is to think out the premises and presuppositions of the culture around them; to try to understand and interpret the most fundamental issues around us during the time we live.”

Born in Chicago, Compton earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the College of Wooster and his master’s and doctorate in philosophy from Yale University. His father, Arthur Compton, won the Nobel Prize in physics for helping to develop the first self-sustaining atomic chain reaction, resulting in the controlled release of nuclear energy.

“After World War II and the explosion of my father’s ambiguous creation, the world – insofar as I would have any part in it – needed more reflection and more emphasis on the values for which we live rather than the development of scientific knowledge,” John Compton told the Vanderbilt Register in 1998.

During his career, Compton was chair and secretary of the Faculty Council; chair of various university committees, including Religious Affairs, Alumni Education, and Teaching and Learning; and served on numerous others, including the Tenure and Promotions Committee. He won many teaching awards, including the Danforth, Sarratt, Alumni and Peabody awards, as well as the Chancellor’s Cup.

“John was a mentor to me for most of my professional life,” said Charles E. Scott, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus. “He was one of the most welcoming and affirming colleagues I have known.

“For many years, his and Marge’s house was a place where colleagues who often disagreed on most issues found themselves as friends in common due to the warmth, affection and sympathetic understanding that permeated their home,” Scott said. “[rquote]His standards for excellence, contagious sense of humor and strong ethical commitments left a legacy that made Vanderbilt a far better educational institution than it would have been without him.[/rquote] We have lost a great man.”

Compton was honored with an emeritus title in 1998.

“He was a kind, elegant man and a very good philosopher,” added John Lachs, Centennial Chair of Philosophy.

Survivors include wife Marjorie Compton of Nashville; daughters Elizabeth Compton Interlandi of Nashville and Catherine Compton Swanson of Lexington, Mass.; and son John Arthur Compton of Eagle, Idaho.

A memorial celebration is being planned.