He was born in Wombwell, Yorkshire, the son of William Thompson, a colliery executive, and Charlotte Emily. He was educated at King Edward VII School in Sheffield, then at Trinity College, Oxford, where he was tutored by Cyril Norman Hinshelwood. He graduated in 1929 and worked with Fritz Haber and Max Planck in Berlin. He returned to Oxford in 1930 after receiving a Ph.D. from the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin.
He was an inspiring teacher, and his research interests included chemical reactions in gases, photochemistry and spectroscopy. During the Second World War he worked on infra-red spectroscopy for the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and afterwards continued research in this field.
He was an avid football player, earning a blue in his final year at Oxford. He was involved with Oxford University Association Football Club for most of his life, helping to establish the Varsity match at Wembley. He established the Pegasus Club in 1948 and was Chairman of the Football Association (1976–1981). He received many honours, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1946. He was knighted in 1968 and made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1971.