Breaking Through the Clouds: Joanne Simpson and the Tropical Atmosphere

October 20, 2017

Jim Fleming

Hosted by Jeff Collett and Sue van den Heever

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Joanne Simpson was a pioneering tropical meteorologist. She earned her Ph.D. in meteorology in 1949, the first US woman to do so. However, her life encompassed much more than that gendered feat. Through a troubled childhood, three marriages, two divorces, the birth of three children, a decade-long affair, struggles with depression and migraines, and sexism in the workplace, Joanne persevered and made fundamental contributions to the field of meteorology. Her work spanned many decades, societal attitudes, and technological advances. While her accomplishments are well known in the meteorological community, her personal life has long been misperceived.

Joanne left a large collection of her papers, photographs, journals, and letters as well as narrative accounts of many important moments in her life in the Radcliffe Institute Archives at Harvard University. Radical new dimensions of Joanne’s life emerge when studying these materials.

From her formative experiences as a sad, strong, and often rebellious child to her adolescent determination that, “I’m going to get somewhere and be somebody,” Joanne’s life involved a quest to find love and happiness (which she eventually did), recognition (which she certainly did), and to leave a legacy through mentorship and expanding horizons for women in meteorology (which we are thankful she did).