Nothing Will Stop Her from Being a Meteorologist

March 5, 2010 · 7 comments

Joanne Simpson, 1923-2010

AMS President Peggy LeMone wrote a guest editorial in the UCAR Staff Notes in January, telling stories from the front lines of the struggle to give women equal footing in the sciences. Interestingly, several times during LeMone’s career at NCAR, women had to formally organize themselves to fight a particularly galling decision or simply to understand and improve their working conditions. None of these episodes, however, quite encapsulates the lonely, embattled situation of women meteorologists during the 1960s and ’70s more than LeMone’s observation that,

When I met Joanne Simpson, she greeted me like a long-lost sister—it was so exciting to meet another woman in the field!”

This little cameo just confirms that no history of women in science (this being, after all, National Women’s History Month) could be adequate without at least some mention of Joanne Simpson, the first woman Ph.D. meteorologist, whose distinguished research career brought her in contact with her female peers all over the country. She was the pioneer who made all the other pioneers possible.

While one would scarcely know it upon meeting and talking to Joanne, the weight of this responsibility blazing a path for her female colleagues took a toll. She said

I have always felt that I’ve been carrying a big burden for other women, because if I mess up then the chances for other women to get the same kind of job are going to be diminished.

Of course Joanne Simpson, who died early Thursday less than three weeks before her 87th birthday, did not mess up.  She has long been a legendary pioneer of meteorology. Winner of the AMS Rossby Award (and our president, in 1989) as well as the IMO Prize, she turned meteorology on its head with the discovery that energetic processes in clouds don’t just signify the atmospheric circulation, they help drive it. She went on to extend her concept of “hot tower” clouds to explain the inner workings of the heat engine of hurricanes, then fought for the satellite observing systems that would later show such clouds in action.

Simpson basically created from scratch the discipline of cloud studies as we know it today, then mentored the people and fostered the technology to make sure it would thrive. (For more of Simpson’s inspiring story, be sure to read John Weier’s biographical article at NASA’s Web site, or the AMS monograph, Cloud Systems, Hurricanes, and the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, A Tribute to Dr. Joanne Simpson.)

It was quite obvious to the multitudes who knew Simpson that she was in this science for the love of the science itself; consider what she told LeMone in a 1989 interview:

My greatest wish would be 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. I don’t like the idea of when I won’t be a Meteorologist anymore. It’s just inconceivable to me.

Inconceivable indeed, with thousands of people following her path, studying the observations she made possible, using the ideas she formulated. Nothing could ever stop Joanne Simpson from being a meteorologist. Not then, not now.

No real story of meteorology could be written without telling hers. We invite you to do exactly that and share your own part of her story in the comments section.