International Women’s Day: Unsilencing the Forgotten Pillars of Meteorology

March 8, 2019 · 0 comments

In the pages of scientific history, one often hears too much silence. A science–especially meteorology–is built by women who are rarely, if ever, remembered, let alone credited.

So maybe on this International Women’s Day, and more broadly, for Women’s History Month, let’s look back in the pages of history at the dedication to meteorology that women have always shown. Consider the dedication to a very essence of science—observation—shown in this item tucked into the January 1929 BAMS:

MRS. MORGAN IS POINT BARROW OBSERVER

When the Weather Bureau announced in the fall that radio weather reports were beginning to come in from our northernmost station, Point Barrow, Alaska, at latitude 71°…nobody would have guessed that the observer at this coldest and most inaccessible station, 450 miles north of other radio weather outposts, is a young woman, Mrs. Beverly A. Morgan, wife of the Army Signal Corps radio operator at the trading post there. …Mrs. Morgan and her husband live in the most primitive surroundings with only a few score people within hundreds of miles. Their only communication with the outside world, with the exception of their radio, will be a steamer once and sometimes twice a year. Occasionally even this powerful icebreaker is unable to penetrate to the post for months after her scheduled arrival. Shortage of food and other supplies has often caused serious handicap at the station, necessitating rationing of food. The temperature averages 19° F. below zero during the coldest winter months, and has been known to reach 55° below zero. Despite these hardships, Mrs. Morgan has pledged herself to make the routine observations twice a day regardless of weather, storms, sickness or other conditions. Many of the instruments require considerable mechanical attention and Mrs. Morgan is performing these duties in addition to her work as observer. The arduous observing is of great importance to cold wave forecasting in the United States, for Charles L. Mitchell, chief forecaster of the U. S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D. C., has found, by studies of reports for earlier years received by mail from this station and others, that the great invasions of cold air that sweep over much of the North American continent come in most frequently off the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska and are first observed at Point Barrow. Thus the reports from Mrs. Morgan will probably give us warnings of the approach of cold periods in winter some days earlier than heretofore.

And let’s listen to the commitment of one Mrs. Ross Morgan, a noted Weather Bureau Cooperative Observer, as recorded in her address to an AMS meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, later published in the January 1928 BAMS:

DUTIES AND EXPERIENCES OF A COOPERATIVE OBSERVER

By MRS. ROSS WOODS, Cooperative Observer, Palmetto, Tenn.

For years it has been my desire to have a convention of the weather observers of our state, that I might meet my fellow cooperatives and exchange experiences with them, but such a convention up to this time has not seemed feasible.

But now two mighty luminaries in the scientific world are in conjunction and with their combined attractive force, are drawing all the earth, great and small, toward them. The American Meteorological Society, for the first time in its history, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for the second time in its history, are met in our capital city. Truly opportunity is at the high tide of the spring tide and my erstwhile dream for years of too little importance to warrant fulfillment, is now a reality.

And now that I have the opportunity to speak, my heart fills so with emotion the words are choked back and with Tennyson I cry, “And I would that I could utter the thoughts that arise in me.” That little latticed shed, or instrument shelter, in the yard back home does not seem to me to house mere instruments of wood and metal. Those instruments are a part of my family and as dear to me as some cherished heirloom to another. And why shouldn’t I love them when I recall the days that used to be?….

At first I loved them because of my father, later for their own sake or shall I say because through association with my own babies they became almost like one of the children. For more than twenty-two years they have stood in my yard with the pride of their thirty-eight years of unbroken record which…had stood until last summer I was absent for ten days and not even the most insistent S.O.S. could secure a substitute.

How very, very often, I have the pleasure of showing a visitor or newcomer the maximum and the minimum thermometers, how they keep their register till I set them, explain the way to measure the rain, of keeping a daily record and noting the direction of the wind and character of the day, all of which must be made out once a month and sent to the Weather Bureau at Nashville. Usually this information calls forth words of appreciation and commendation, but there are some who are wont to ask, “Why do you do all this for nothing?” The easiest reply is: the compensation the Government could allow for this work would be small yet there are many incompetent and irresponsible persons, who would take it for the price, small though it be. But the truest and best reason is deep within my heart and could not be understood by a disinterested listener.

In fancy I stand before the instrument, not at the time I set the thermometer and make my daily record, but this is the hour before bedtime and this is my observation; above me is the sky “that beautiful parchment on which the sun and moon keep their diary….I see it “sometimes gentle, sometimes capricious, sometimes awful, never the same for two moments together, almost human in its passions, almost spiritual in its tenderness, almost divine in its infinity,” and I am glad I am numbered even though in a humble way among those who scan the sky.

Yes, we will remind readers of the exploits of the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences, the late Joanne Simpson who also served as AMS president (for example, today is a good day to listen to Carol Lipschultz’s biographical presentation on Dr. Simpson, here). And we will remember the story of Ann Louise Beck, who earned her Master’s degree in our science in 1922 while being instrumental in pioneering the use of the Norwegian cyclone model in weather analysis and forecasting in the United States. Her review paper on what she learned from her fellowship year in Bergen was probably the introduction to modern scientific forecasting for many American meteorologists in her day.

But lets remember that despite the all-too-often silence of history, women have long been a pillar of meteorology. Because of course they were, even if the journals are mostly silent.

In Dr. Simpson’s words, when she accepted the AMS Rossby Research Medal in January 1983.

Women meteorologists can now stand on their own, without defensiveness—and soon without, I hope, the prefix “woman ” preceding “meteorologist.” They no longer need, want, nor should expect special treatment or attention. For this alone I’m very glad I’ve survived to this day. My receiving this wonderful, encouraging—though simultaneously humbling—recognition is not an anomaly, but on the contrary, is a harbinger. It says—loudly and clearly—to that increasing number of younger women contributing to our science that each of you can expect an opportunity comparable to that of your male colleagues to receive the recognition that you earn. I am confident, in fact, if I am accorded a normal life span, that I will be here to cheer for the next several of you when one of these great honors comes your way.