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Legend of Meteorology Drifts Off

Patricia Sullivan

Joanne Simpson, earlier known as Joanne Malkus, had one of those lives that makes you go "Wow."

Dr. Simpson, the first female meteorologist to earn a doctorate, developed the first scientific model of clouds, discovered what keeps hurricanes whirling forward, and revealed what drives the atmospheric currents in the tropics. She later conducted unique "weather modification" experiments and ran an international satellite project that measures tropical rainfall over the oceans, enterprises that continue to have significant impacts in the field.


There have been a number of online tributes since she died early Thursday, but I liked this one, from James Williams at Discovery News. She and her husband, Robert Simpson - another pioneer of meteorology - sat for an interview and positioned their couch so they could watch the clouds from their top floor apartment. Great video there, too.

Dr. Simpson was lively and quotable. The English newspaper, The Guardian, in 1999 said she'd make a terrific character in a movie, but Dr. Simpson pooh-poohed Hollywood's portrayal of the tornado-chasing scientist played by Helen Hunt in "Twister," who did her fieldwork in a tight vest without a bra.

"Not very practical," Dr. Simpson said.. "You get greasy, things fly all over, generally you'd wear dungarees. I guess it's a step forward to have female scientists in movies, but people only become prominent and respected when they're 40 or so."

She was a woman who had to forge her own way in the scientific world, and according to colleagues, always helped those still on their way up. In 1973, she wrote in a scientific journal: "I think that the difficulties faced by a woman trying to combine top-level achievement with marriage and motherhood are close to prohibitive."

Later, she acknowledged that things had changed.

"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," 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."

By Patricia Sullivan  |  March 8, 2010; 1:03 PM ET
Categories:  Patricia Sullivan , Science , Washington DC-area people  
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