Joanne Simpson

“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.”

Quick Facts

Born: 23rd March 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Died: 4th March 2010 in Washington D.C., aged 86.

Previous Occupations: Include Research Meteorologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Chief of the Severe Storms Branch of NASAs Laboratory for Atmosphere

Areas of Interest: Tropical meteorology and tropical cyclone research.

Known For: Becoming the first ever female to receive a PhD in meteorology.

Childhood and Education

Joanne Simpson was born on 23rd March 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts, to her parents Russel and Virginia Gerould [1]. Her childhood could not be regarded as easy and things began to change after the birth of her brother Daniel at the age of five [2]. She was looked upon less favorably by her mother, who showed a clear preference to Daniel. Her parents later divorced after struggling through a difficult marriage, and this increased tensions between Joanne and her mother who became frustrated that she could not go out and earn a living [3]. Her challenging childhood is what gave Simpson the drive to fulfil a successful education and career.

After finishing at Buckingham High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1940 [1], Simpson entered into an astrophysics course the University of Chicago [3]. This was a noticeable deviation from the typical family route of all women’s Radcliffe College [2]. As a student pilot Simpson had to take a course in meteorology, and her interest in the subject strengthened when she was asked to teach U.S. pilots about the weather during World War II [3]. Simpson had previously developed an interest in clouds when she was learning to sail. After receiving her undergraduate degree in 1943, Simpson went on to complete a master’s degree in 1945 under the supervision of meteorologist Carl-Gustaf Rossby [4]. She then wanted to go on to complete a PhD, but was told that a woman had never received a doctorate in meteorology and never would [5]. Struggling financially, she instead began teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology [5]. It was here that she met her PhD advisor Herbert Riehl, and they began cloud research at the University of Chicago [3]. During this time they published breakthrough papers on tropical meteorology and hurricanes [5]. She became the first ever woman to receive a PhD in meteorology in 1949 [1].


Following her PhD, Simpson went on to work as a research meteorologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, 1951 [5]. It was here where she constructed some of the first mathematical models of clouds [5]. She needed to verify her work by flying through equatorial clouds, but was prohibited by male staff at Woods Hole [3]. However she did later fly but only because the navy aircrews who flew the planes refused to fly without her onboard. In the late 1950’s, Simpson and Riehl explained how heat and moisture was transported from the equator to higher latitudes by the atmosphere, including their well-known “hot tower” hypothesis which later proved valuable in understanding hurricane behavior [6]. Simpson left Woods Hole in 1960 and began teaching at the University of California and researching weather modification [3]. She went on to build the first computer model of clouds in the early 1960’s [6]. Later that decade, Simpson became an advisor to the U.S. Weather Bureau’s National Hurricane Research Project, before joining the Experimental Meteorology Laboratory from 1965-1974 [5]. She then taught for three years at the University of Virginia [5], before taking the position of Chief of the Severe Storms Branch of NASA’s Laboratory for Atmosphere in 1979 [6]. Her research here focused on tropical cyclones and convective clouds [6]. Joanne worked on the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission from 1986 until its launch in 1997, which involved using radar to measure tropical rainfall [6].

Awards and Achievements

  • Received the highest award of the American Meteorological Society in 1983, the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal, becoming the first woman to do so [1].
  • Became the first female President of the American Meteorological Society in 1989 [1].
  • Won the International Meteorological Organisation Prize in 2002 – the first woman to do so [3].


  • Simpson may not have gone into meteorology if it weren’t for World War II. She had to take a course in meteorology as a student pilot [3].
  • Her mother told her “you have to be lovable to be loved”, and this cruel comment stuck with Joanne for the rest of her life [3].

Video Links

Joanne Simpson reflects on her career (2mins):

Scientific Papers and Publications

Simpson, J., On the Structure and Maintenance of the Mature Hurricane Eye, Journal of Meteorology, 1958: