In Memoriam: Joanne M. Simpson

March 24, 2010 — Joanne Simpson, a meteorology professor in the University of Virginia's Department of Environmental Sciences from 1974 to 1979, died March 4 in Washington, D.C. She was 86.

"Not only did she tackle the large and difficult questions, but she did it against the odds in a male-dominated field," said Michael Garstang, U.Va. research professor and professor emeritus in environmental sciences.

In 1949, Simpson became the first female meteorologist to earn a doctorate. Her adviser at the University of Chicago told her no one else was very interested in cloud research, so it was a good subject "for a little girl to study."

Her career spanned six decades and included positions at some of the world's top research facilities, including the University of Chicago, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Experimental Meteorology Laboratory and at NASA. At U.Va., she held the William W. Corcoran Chair in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Simpson was also a mentor for two generations of top-level scientists, particularly women. "She touched the lives of many students during her five years' tenure at the University," Garstang said.

In 1998, she was named one of the Ms. Foundation's top 10 female role models.

"Any comparison between the way it was when I started and the way it is now is like comparing the covered wagon with a jet plane," she told the Christian Science Monitor in 1989. "But this doesn't mean that women don't still have obstacles to overcome. ... Sometimes you have to fight just to keep the opportunities you have."

A Boston native, Simpson also earned a master's degree from the University of Chicago. Frustrated after being repeatedly turned down because of her gender, she was hired at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she became an assistant professor of physics. During the summers, Simpson (then named Malkus) traveled to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute with her family, including two boys, to work on a new project involving tropical clouds. She was also named an adviser to the National Hurricane Research Project in 1963.

She developed the first scientific model of clouds, revealed what keeps hurricanes whirling in one direction and discovered 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, studies that continue to have significant impacts in the field.

After her stint at U.Va., Simpson became chief scientist for meteorology at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and worked there for 30 years, helping many U.Va. graduates start their careers, Garstang said.