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Joanne Malkus Simpson

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of former employee Joanne Malkus Simpson on March 4, of multiple organ failure at George Washington University Hospital in Washington.  She was 86.

Born Joanne Gerould on March 23, 1923, in Boston, she became interested in clouds while learning to sail and later as a student pilot. She studied under Carl Gustaf Rossby at the University of Chicago. After graduating and obtaining a master’s degree, she and two other women sought fellowships for doctoral work in meteorology. A faculty adviser said that no woman had ever received a doctorate in meteorology, none ever would. So she began saving for tuition by teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she met German immigrant Herbert Riehl, who lectured on tropical storm research. Riehl agreed to be her adviser, and she began working on cloud research at the University of Chicago where she received her B.S. in 1943, M.S. in 1945, and Ph.D. in 1949. After she received her doctorate in 1949, she and Riehl wrote several landmark papers about hurricanes and tropical meteorology.

Joanne was 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. She worked for the past 30 years at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, where she was chief scientist for meteorology.

Joanne began work at WHOI as a research associate in the summers from 1948-1951, where, with the help of a slide rule, she constructed some of the first mathematical models of clouds. To validate her work, she needed to fly into the very tall clouds near the equator. The Navy lent WHOI an old PBY-6A airplane, which they outfitted with scientific instruments. But at WHOI during that time, women were not allowed on field expeditions. The naval officer who arranged the aircraft, however, told the WHOI director “No Joanne, no airplane.” She flew. In September 1951 she was appointed as meteorologist and stayed in that position until January 1961, when she took a leave of absence until June 1961. She returned briefly from June-August 1961 before starting another leave of absence. She terminated June 1962, but returned for several summers (in 1964, 1967, and 1968) as a research associate in meteorology.

The next few years took her to England on a Guggenheim fellowship and to the UCLA faculty.

From 1965 to 1974, she was director of NOAA’s Experimental Meteorology Laboratory in Coral Gables, Fla. Although she hadn’t lost faith in the scientific possibilities of cloud seeding, she said in 1999 that the money spent on Stormfury would have been better spent on improving homes and enforcing building codes in hurricane-prone areas.

She moved to the University of Virginia in 1974 but within five years left Charlottesville for NASA Goddard as head of the Severe Storm Branch. She remained there the rest of her career.

Joanne was the first female president of the American Meteorological Society, where she received its highest honor, the Carl-Gustav Rossby Research Medal, in 1983. She was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and in 2002, she was awarded the prestigious International Meteorological Organization Prize. She was the first woman to receive the award.

Survivors include her husband of 45 years, Robert H. Simpson of Washington; a son from her first marriage, David Malkus of Madison, WI.; two children from her second marriage, Stephen Malkus of Falmouth, MA; and Karen Malkus of Brewster, MA.; two stepchildren, Peggy A. Simpson of Washington and Lynn S. Gramzow of Burke, VA; one brother; and six grandchildren.

Information for this obituary was taken from the Washington Post.