Meteorological pioneer Joanne Simpson dies

By Jack Williams ©2015

Joanne Simpson, a world-renowned atmospheric scientist who led the way for today’s many women meteorologists, died on Thursday, March 4, in Washington, D.C.

She and her husband Robert (Bob) Simpson, who survives her, were a rare example of a wife and husband who were both leaders in the same scientific field.  In The AMS Weather Book I characterized their importance: “No history of the atmospheric sciences since World War II is complete without the stories of Joanne and Bob Simpson,”

Joanne Simpson was born in 1923 and earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology at the University of Chicago in 1943. She began her career by teaching meteorology to aviation cadets during World War II. When the War ended she refused “to go home and mop the floor” as women who had been doing “men’s work” were expected to do.

Instead, she became the first woman in the United States to earn a PhD degree in meteorology.

Joanne Simpson accepts the International Meteorological Organization Prize in 2002. NASA photo

When she told Carl Gustav Rossby, a giant of 20th century meteorology and one of her mentors, that she wanted to do her PhD dissertation on tropical clouds, he told her this would be “an excellent problem for a little girl to work on because it’s not very important and  few people are interested. You should be able to stand out if you work hard.”

While Rossby’s remark would be considered dismissive today, he supported her work and in 1955 arranged for her to use his computer in Stockholm, Sweden–from 3 to 6 a.m. when others weren’t using it–to complete her groundbreaking scientific paper on a mathematical model of clouds.

Today clouds are a major focus on meteorological research by scientists seeking to  better understand day-to-day weather, hurricanes, severe thunderstorms, and climate change.

In 1958 she and Herbert Riehl published a scientific paper on the role of  air that rises to form tropical clouds in moving heat and moisture to higher latitudes as part of earth’s overall atmospheric circulation. This work is considered to be the basis of today’s understanding of the tropical atmosphere. This paper also provided new insights on how hurricanes work.

By the mid 1950s Simpson had become internationally known for her work on  tropical weather and clouds, which led to her being invited to participate in the large U.S. government’s Hurricane Research Project led by her future husband.

Bob Simpson later said that this was the “beginning of my scientific association and collaboration with Joanne,” which “melded into a personal relationship culminating in our marriage in January 1965 and the beginning of a long happy, and fruitful life together.”

Joanne and Bob Simpson at the National Hurricane Center in 1968. NOAA photo

In 1961 Bob started the government’s Project Stormfury to test the hypotheses that he and Joanne had worked out that cloud seeding could be used to weaken hurricanes. From 1964 to 1974 Joanne headed the government’s Experimental Meteorological Laboratory, which included Project Stormfury and a cloud seeding program in Florida.

In 1979 Joanne became head of the severe storms branch of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md.  She said that working at Goddard meant that for the first time in her career “I could discuss science in the ladies room.”

As NASA, her research focused on thunderstorm systems and tropical cyclones. This work included participating in several large field projects.

In 1986, NASA asked her to lead the science study for the proposed joint Japanese-U.S. Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), a satellite to accurately measure rainfall across the tropics and subtropics. From 1986 until 1997 Simpson was study scientist and then project scientist for TRMM, bringing it from concept to reality.

In a press release about Joanne Simpson’s death, NASA quotes Dorothy Zukor, Deputy Director of Earth Sciences at the Goddard as saying:  “Joanne was a joy to work with. In addition to being excited and enthusiastic about her own research, she was always helping students to become scientists. Many are practicing in the field today because of her guidance and encouragement. She has left a true legacy, not only from her own work but for the future of the field.”

This legacy was highlighted during a symposium “celebrating the first fifty years of Dr. Joanne Simpson’s career” at the Goddard Space Flight Center December 1-3, 1999.

It included 36 presentations that focused on scientific interactions with her that influenced personal research including  observations and modeling of clouds, cloud systems, and hurricanes; and TRMM.

In 1989 Joanne Simpson became the first woman president of the American Meteorological Society. In 1983 the Society had presented her with its Carl Gustav Rossby Award, its highest honor.

NASA’s online biography of Joanne Simpson quotes her as saying: “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.”

By early this century, however, she said, “I think I can now retire as a role model, since there are so many really great younger women meteorologists—many of whom have children, too—who are serving that function extremely well.”

In addition to her husband, Joanne Simpson is survived by her children, David Malkus, Steven Malkus and Karen Elizabeth Malkus, her stepchildren Peggy A. Simpson and Lynn S. Gramzow, her brother Daniel Gerould, and five grandchildren.

A Memorial Service will be held at Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, March 23 at 1 p.m.


My account of Joanne Simpson’s life and career is based on interviews with her, with her husband, Bob Simpson, and both of them together that I conducted from 1991 through 2008.

I used material from these interviews for USA TODAY stories and in three of my books:

“At meteorology’s center,” a profile of the Simpsons in Jack Williams, The AMS Weather Book: The Ultimate Guide to America’s Weather (Chicago, The American Meteorological Society and the University of Chicago Press, 2009), 18-19.

“A singular career discovering the ways of clouds” in Jack Williams, The Weather Book: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the USA’s Weather (New York, USA TODAY and Vintage Books, second edition, 1997), 10-11.

“Controlling Storms” in Dr. bob Sheets and jack Williams, Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth (New York, Vintage Books, 2001), 157-178.  (This chapter is mostly devoted to Project Stormfury.)

Some of the information above is from the NASA press release on Joanne Simpson’s death. Other information sources are listed on the Chapter 1 page on the Supplementary Texts Web site for The AMS Weather Book.

More on Joanne Simpson’s roles in the atmospheric sciences:

  • The March 5 American Meteorological Society blog
  • NASA Earth Observatory Web biography

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One Response to “Meteorological pioneer Joanne Simpson dies”

  1. […] she says about how women are treated reminds me to the stories that Joanne Simpson and other women have told me about their struggles to become accepted as serious atmospheric […]