Nothing Will Stop Her from Being a Meteorologist

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.

7 thoughts on “Nothing Will Stop Her from Being a Meteorologist”

  1. Joanne was an inspiration and supporter of younger women in meteorology, not only by setting an example, but also by helping to tear down barriers hindering women’s full participation and encouraging us person-to-person. Many of the rules she lived by, such as — don’t sweat the small stuff, when you have a big problem, break it down into smaller pieces, and address them one piece at a time, — she shared with the rest of us, as well as a love for the field, and a generous spirit. And she mentored and inspired younger men in the field as well. Though we will miss her terribly, we have these gifts to remember her by.

  2. Thank you Joanne for carving a place for women in the field of Meteorology. The burden is ours now to carry your dreams of clouds forward. We will miss you.

  3. Joanne Simpson inspired many, many meteorologists but especially women. I considered myself blessed to have met her during a summer visit to NASA Goddard. She welcomed everyone who stopped by her office. While there, one could not help but be carried along by her wave of enthusiasm for her science and for the next generation of scientists. She blazed a road, not a trail, and left us with a great legacy.

  4. Joanne Simpson was such an indomitable presence. Nothing could stop her quest for solving meteorological problems, especially those associated with clouds and tropical cyclones.
    My first acquaintance with Joanne (under the name of J.S. Malkus) was through her marvelous chapter in “The Sea”, Vol 1 1962, pp 22-294, entitled: Large scale interactions, M.N Hill editor, Interscience Publishers, New York. She instantly became my mentor through her words, because I thought I heard a female voice. I felt so elated. It was the first time I had found any writing in science by a woman, and it was GOOD!
    In time we became very good friends, and her support I am sure was crucial for many aspects of my career, all of which I may never fully know, but certainly appreciate very much.
    Joanne took up strong and very successful leadersip of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission at NASA at an advanced age. Wow-such a Woman! Thank you for all that you gave us!

  5. From the distance of Australia, Joanne still inspired. In a seminar she gave at the Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne, I recall her thoughtful use of the question session at the end. She used it as much to learn new things herself, as to help others understand the finer points of her seminar. I thought: She is always trying to learn, we should all do that. I hope I still maintain that attitude now that I teach.

  6. If I may, I would like to add a male voice to these tributes(!)
    As a graduate student in the early 60s, Joanne’s influence on our professional development was profound through her famous publications with Herbert Riehl. But the spirit of her scientific drive was manifest through personal contacts, even when second hand.
    One of the first examples of her direct contribution to my own career was in 1966, shortly after the completion of doctoral dissertations by Mike Garstang and myself. Seemingly out of the blue, Joanne sent us a draft manuscript incorporating significant elements of our dissertations, but woven into an interesting story. This became a published paper (Simpson, Garstang, Zipser, and Dean, JAM 1967) that was an object lesson in how to extract nuggets of significance from a complex set of observations. In ways not obvious to us at the time, the ideas in that paper became important elements of the scientific design of the massive GATE experiment carried out in the tropical Atlantic in 1974, based in Dakar, Senegal.
    My own principal role in GATE was to write the scientific aircraft plan, and to help oversee the field operations over a 3-month period. Needless to say, with 13 aircraft from 7 nations, this was a huge, intricate, and exhausting task, involving hundreds of
    people. When Joanne and Bob Simpson arrived in Dakar midway through the program, I was a little apprehensive how these famous scientists would react to “direction” from a relatively inexperienced youngster. I need not have worried. Bob and Joanne made great contributions simply by pitching in, taking roles as mission and aircraft scientists, and by constant stimulation from their scientific discussions and interactions
    with all of us, young and old, and especially the 50+ students who were in the field.
    Years later, it was one of the highlights of my career to participate with Joanne in many field experiments, sometimes in the planning, sometimes as fellow passengers on research aircraft, such as the very exciting flight into tropical storm Oliver during its rapid development in front of our eyes. (see Simpson et al. and Ritchie et al. for the rest of this story). Later, it was in responding to her focused scientific direction of NASA’s Tropical Rain Measuring Mission (TRMM) and the field campaigns mounted in 1998-1999 to obtain essential surface and aircraft-based data for validation and understanding of those unique satellite datasets. While I will miss our friendship and
    personal interactions, the example and inspiration from 50 years of knowing her will always be contributing to anything I may do professionally.

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