The first woman to earn a doctorate in meteorology in the United States and the first woman president of the American Meteorological Society, her greatest wish was “to be like Grady Norton, who died of a heart attack while forecasting a hurricane, or like my early hero, Rossby, who keeled over and died in the middle of giving a seminar.” When she died in early March 2010 just shy of her 87th birthday, Dr Joanne Simpson had become one of the great meteorologists of all time and a pioneering female scientist who flung open the doors of an all-male profession.
True, there were other women in meteorology before her, including the many women, such as Dorothy L. Taylor, who served during World War II as weather observers for the US military. When the war ended, most of them moved back into roles as wives and mothers. Born in Boston in 1923, Born Joanne Gerould, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in meteorology in 1943, then taught meteorology to aviation cadets and military forecasters during the remaining war years. Her sixty-year career in meteorology never really ended, as she remained active in tropical weather research until shortly before her death.
Joanne Gerould had an early attachment with the sky. Her father was the aviation editor for the Boston Herald. She earned her pilot’s license at the age of sixteen. Her experiences sailing her small catboat of Cape Cod and as a pilot led to an interest in clouds and weather. When World War II broke out, she was a student at the University of Chicago in astrophysics and wanted to join the WAVES, but was discouraged to do so by her parents. While at Chicago, she enquired as to whether any courses in weather were available. Serendipitously, Carl-Gustav Rossby had just arrived at Chicago to start a program in meteorology.
After an appointment with Rossby, she found herself enrolled in a World War II meteorology program as a teacher-in-training. Joanne was one of 50 women chosen to take a nine-month training course in order to become military Weather Officers who would train aviation cadets. Her group received their training at the University of Chicago, in the “Fourth War Course,” which graduated in May 1943. Following the course, she taught weather to Aviation Cadets at both New York University and the University of Chicago. Joanne also assisted in teaching dynamics and synoptic laboratory, helping to prepare weather maps.
Joanne Simpson at work at Woods Hole Photo courtesy NASA
She followed her bachelor’s degree with a master’s degree in meteorology also at the University of Chicago. As she finished her degree in 1945, the war had ended and opportunities in science for women dwindled. But Joanne wanted to take herself further in meteorology, and applied to pursue a doctorate at Chicago.
In a interview with Jack Williams, then of USA Today, she recalled the reaction of the Chicago professors. “They told me it was totally inappropriate for a woman to be a meteorologist. You would have to work night shifts, leaving the airport in the middle of the night. You would have to fly in airplanes to do research. You'd have to do all kinds of things women can't do.” She recalled the reaction of renowned meteorologist Carl Rossby, then head of the department to her application. “No woman has ever obtained a PhD in Meteorology, none ever will, and even if you did manage to get one, no one will give you a job.” She remembered “Every possible obstacle was put in our way, ranging from refusal of scholarships to downright hostility from the wives as well as the men.”
While teaching physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), she continued to take graduate courses, and when Rossby left the department in 1947, Joanne contact Herbert Riehl, who was intrigued by her interest in his tropical meteorology work. Riehl agreed to be her faculty advisory. Now Joanne Malkus, she began studying tropical convection clouds in relation to tropical wind systems and earned her doctorate in 1949.
But Joanne found that one of Rossby’s remarks proved true. No one would hire her as a meteorologist, so she continued to teach at IIT. But a fortunate chance — her mother was dating MIT professor and meteorologist Bernhard Haurwitz who had a project analyzing tropical clouds at Woods Hole — led to a summer job where she analyzed films of trade wind cumuli between islands in the tropical Pacific. From these films, Joanne drew maps of cloud formations that revealed specific patterns that are now routinely seen on satellite images. This work resulted in her obtaining a full-time position at Woods Hole in 1951.
Map of trade wind cloud formations Malkus and Riehl, "Cloud Structure and Distributions over the Tropical Pacific Ocean"(1964). Photo courtesy NASA
There, Joanne Malkus broke the gender barrier for meteorological field research. The significant event involved the Navy’s loan to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute of a WWII-vintage amphibious aircraft for fieldwork to better understand tropical clouds. Woods Hole tradition stated no women were allowed on its oceanographic research vessels. But through the support of Captain Max Eaton of the Office of Naval Research, she open the door to women researchers. Eaton had simply said: “No Joanne, no airplane.” (Thereafter, Woods Hole dropped its gender restrictions on all research vessels.)
Joanne (Malkus) Simpson photographs clouds in the 1950s from a Woods Hole research aircraft. Photo courtesy NASA
Over the next five years, the Woods Hole group carried out three productive field research programs. The work of Malkus and colleagues helped show the critical role tropical clouds play in global atmospheric circulation and opened the door for the initial development of cloud models, of which she is a pioneer. This research culminated into the late 1950s when Malkus and Riehl showed that the heat generated by the condensation of water within tall, anvil-shaped, cumulonimbus clouds — which they called hot towers — provided the energy that ran the Hadley circulation and the trade winds.
Concurrent to this work, another of Herbert Riehl’s former graduate students Dr Robert Simpson of the US Weather Bureau had begun the Hurricane Research Project, in Palm Beach Florida. Joanne Malkus, who had been named an advisor to the project, was asked to look at their data, and from it, she made new discoveries on how a hurricane “worked.” Her landmark paper, “On the structure and maintenance of the mature hurricane eye,” described the heat transport mechanism in hurricanes.
In 1960, Malkus became a full Professor at the University of California Los Angeles, where she “computerized” her cloud models and sought ways to test them. (Previously, she had used a slide rule to do the model calculations because computers weren’t yet available.) She realized that cloud seeding experiments might be a good source of test data. In 1963, she found aircraft time during Project Stormfury, a weather modification experiment started in 1961 by Robert Simpson to see if hurricanes could be modified by cloud seeding. The data obtained confirmed her model predictions. In 1964, Simpson left UCLA for a research position with the US National Weather Bureau.
Joanne Simpson at work at UCLA Photo courtesy Schlesinger Library
Her private life merged with her professional one in 1965 when she married Robert Simpson, then head of the Weather Bureau’s Severe Storms Program, and later well-known, at least by surname, as the co-developer of the Hurricane Category Scale with Herbert Saffir. Shortly thereafter, Robert Simpson was appointed Director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, and Joanne Simpson was picked to head its Experimental Meteorology Laboratory, which included being in charge of Project Stormfury. For the next decade, she led the study of weather modification of tropical storms and for rainfall enhancement, the latter through Project FACE (Florida Area Cumulus Experiment).
In 1974, Simpson left NOAA and became an Endowed Chair Professor in the Environmental Science Department at the University of Virginia. But here again she faced the spectre of gender discrimination from the all-male faculty. Frustrated, she asked David Atlas who had been assembling the Laboratory for Atmospheres at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center if any work was available, and he offered her the head position of the Severe Storms Branch. Though she began work on leave from Virginia, she formally assumed the post as Chief of the Severe Storms Branch of NASA’s Laboratory for Atmosphere in 1979.
“When I first got to NASA, I realized I could talk science in the ladies’ room. This was something new in my career, to find three or four other scientists in the ladies’ room,” she told Jack Williams of USA Today. She was to stay at NASA for the next 30 years in a variety of positions, the last as chief scientist emeritus for the Meteorology, Earth Sun Exploration Division at the Goddard Space Flight Center, which she held on her death.
During her years with NASA, she engaged in an alphabet soup of important projects including the Convection And Moisture EXperiment (CAMEX) missions, the Tropical Ocean Global Atmospheres/Coupled Ocean Atmosphere Response Experiment (TOGA COARE), the GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE), and the Winter Monsoon Experiment (Winter MONEX).
In 1986, NASA asked Simpson to head the science team for the proposed Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, the first space-based rain radar, which would measure rainfall across the tropics and subtropics. TRMM is a joint mission between NASA and JAXA, Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency. Launched in 1997, the satellite has allowed great leaps in the understanding of tropical rainfall. Simpson herself believed her involvement with TRMM was the single greatest accomplishment of her career.
Image from TRRM Satellite. Photo courtesy NASA
The American Meteorological Society bestowed its Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal, its highest honor, on Joanne Simpson in 1983 for her “outstanding contributions to man's understanding of the structure of the atmosphere. Ironically, it was Rossby who had said she would never find work in meteorology because of her gender. “He told me that I would look both ridiculous and pathetic if I didn’t really make it big after making such an unconventional spectacle of myself in my fight to become a meteorologist.” Simpson recalled. In 1989, her colleagues elected her President of the American Meteorological Society, the first woman to hold that position.
Dr Joanne Simpson received many accolades over her long career including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1954), the Department of Commerce Gold Medal (1972), membership in the National Academy of Engineering (1988), the first William Norberg Memorial Award for Earth Sciences (1994), the International Meteorological Organization Prize (2002) being the first woman to win the last award, and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006). In addition, the NASA Goddard Cray T3E super computer has been named jsimpson in her honor.
Bob Simpson, Joanne Simpson and Milton Halem, ESDC Division Chief, commemorate naming the CRAY T3E in Joanne Simpson's honor. Photo courtesy NASA
Not long before her death, a producer from the Discovery Channel asked what most fascinated her about the study of the atmosphere. “In my case, it’s the clouds,” she said without hesitation. “There are some beautiful ones out there right now,” she said while gesturing toward the window.
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