High Flyer

Revealing biography of pioneering meteorologist Joanne Simpson an intimate portrayal of triumph over adversity

By Laura MeaderPhotography by Gabe Souza
October 7, 2020

Women scientists across the generations have overcome gender discrimination to achieve greatness in their field. Chemist Marie Curie, mathematician Katherine Johnson, and astrophysicist Sally Ride to name but a few.

To that list we can add meteorologist Joanne Simpson, the subject of a new book by historian of science James R. Fleming, Colby’s Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society.

James R. Fleming, Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society

In First Woman: Joanne Simpson and the Tropical Atmosphere, we traverse Earth’s icy stratosphere, flirt with hurricanes, and soar among tropical clouds with an inspiring woman piloting her way through a turbulent life until she touches down into the history books.

A leader, collaborator, mentor, and pioneering scientist, Simpson (1923-2010) turned an early fascination with clouds and weather into groundbreaking work across six decades of significant changes in meteorological science.

First Woman (Oxford University Press, 2020) paints a holistic portrait of Simpson, a woman burdened with anxieties and depression but blessed with vision and ambition, while tracing the history of tropical meteorology through her experiences and discoveries.

Fleming, the first to write a comprehensive biography of Simpson, spent five years mining her archive at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute to bring her story to life. He was the first to read her personal diaries, containing details of a love affair and her passion for life. “This settles it,” Fleming said upon finding the diaries. “I’ve got to write this up.”

But there was more to it than the journals. “I had an affinity for Joanne,” said Fleming, who studied tropical meteorology for a master’s degree and, like Simpson, trained in high-altitude flight techniques. “So I had to be careful not to become a cheerleader for her.”

Yet we can be free to cheer for her. Fleming helps us see that “she wasn’t just the best woman meteorologist. She was the best meteorologist. Period.”

Fleming follows Simpson’s career “from her role in training aviation weather cadets during World War II to the emergence of atmospheric science as an interdisciplinary, space-age field.” But it was less of a path and more of an obstacle course of rules, ridicule, and outright prejudice that at times overwhelmed, but never dissuaded, Simpson.

Meteorologist Joanne Simpson
Meteorologist Joanne Simpson in 1973 flying as part of the Florida Area Cumulus Experiment (FACE). Simpson Papers, 455, PD-17.

“She wasn’t just the best woman meteorologist. She was the best meteorologist. Period.”

James R. Fleming, Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society

After earning a Ph.D. in meteorology at the University of Chicago and then teaching there, Simpson conducted research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (1948-51) and at NOAA (1964-74). She led large airborne observing projects, built computerized cloud models, and participated in experimental seeding of hurricanes and clouds. She briefly held two university professorships that were soured by sexism and ultimately repelled her from academia.

Her career culminated at NASA, where her most significant work, she said, was as project scientist for its Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, a satellite-based program launched in 1997 that was the first radar in space. Simpson heralded the mission as a vital scientific contribution and an important tool for forecasters.

Yet running underneath Simpson’s professional drive was a lifelong search for love. Simpson longed for acceptance from her mother, a budding journalist who saw Simpson’s birth as thwarting her career. A deep and long-lived distaste for her daughter followed. “I spent a substantial part of my life,” wrote Simpson, “trying to make myself lovable or even likable to her.”

Simpson was not, however, without lovers or romance. Married three times, she also engaged in a decades-long affair with photographer and frequent colleague Claude Ronne. The book’s sections recounting their affair are its most tender with extended quotes from Simpson’s diaries.

“I felt like a princess, in a dream. … When I think of dancing from now on, it will be of dancing with you in the darkness, almost madly, till we were exhausted and dizzy.”

The intimacy and detail captured in First Woman show Fleming’s artistry at humanizing scientists and placing them in a larger social context. Without that context, he said, “we’re not really understanding the way that science is done.”

By framing Simpson’s accomplishments in the last century’s male-dominated world of meteorology, Fleming helps us understand the significance of her accomplishments. So yes, we cheer when she’s the first woman to win the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal, the top award given by the American Meteorological Society (AMS). And applaud when she becomes the first woman president of the AMS at the height of her career.

Her unwillingness to succumb to personal and societal pressures mirrors her signature “hot tower hypothesis.” She exemplifies the small, puffy, trade cumulus clouds that push through downward environmental forces to become towering, powerful thunderclouds that extend to the stratosphere.

Simpson reached “the pinnacle of personal and professional accomplishment and conditioned the atmosphere for further breakthroughs for women in meteorology and further developments in the understanding of the tropics,” Fleming wrote.

As meteorology’s first woman, “Joanne prevailed.”

First Woman book cover

First Woman

Joanne Simpson and the Tropical Atmosphere

(Oxford University Press, 2020)