Derby has a created quite a tradition in honouring local heroes that are world famous names in their field but perhaps deserve a little more recognition in their home city and the plaque for Sir George Clarke Simpson is a great example. He may not have stayed in the city long, having been born on East Street on September 2nd 1878 and educated at Derby School before moving on to college in Manchester and the University of Gottingen in Germany, but his achievements in meteorology across the world have shaped the way we all understand the weather.
Sir George Clarke Simpson’s early career in meteorology took him around the world.
Simpson’s entire adult life appears to have been devoted to researching meteorology in some form and his desire to learn and travel took him to some interesting research sites and academic positions. First he headed out to Lapland to learn about atmospheric electricity in 1902, when he would have been no more than 24; just a few years later he had the honour of being the first lecturer in meteorology in Britain in 1905 at the University of Manchester; next he joined the Indian Meteorological Service in 1906, where he worked at inspecting stations in both India and Burma.
The next destination was in Antarctica as a member of Scott’s expedition.
Simpson’s involvement in the infamous expedition to the south pole from 1910-12 is arguably the biggest reason for his fame, if only for the event’s place in history. As the camp’s, meteorologist, it was George’s job to measure conditions and wind temperature at the base camp at Cape Evans but he also found himself in command of the camp when Scott left to search for the South Pole. The year before the trip, Scott had ordered a preliminary expedition into the Barrier so that tests could be carried out on the weather for the time of year and calculations could be made for the expedition. Simpson was part of this team and built one of the continent’s first weather stations and carried out experiments to test the atmosphere and determine the affects of altitude. By the time they were ready to launch the final mission, Scott and Simpson were both confident that temperatures would be in the range of ten to twenty degrees below zero, and this is precisely what they prepared for. Unfortunately, the calculations turned out to be wrong and temperatures fell much lower. Simpson was left in command of his base as Scott set off and was devastated when the party did not return.
Despite the setback, Sir George Clarke Simpson continued to make a name for himself in the UK and abroad.
When the Antarctic trip ended, Simpson initially returned to India, deciding to rejoin the Indian Meteorological Services in Simla. Rather than use the move back to Asia as a means of getting away from the tragedy of the expedition, George spent much of his spare time compiling the notes he had put together during his time in Antarctica – work that would help to reinforce his position as one of Britain’s best meteorologists. It was not long before he returned to England with his new knowledge and continued to make his mark with even greater research and inventions, going on to earn the respect of his peers and countryman.
This respect can perhaps be seen in no better way than the decision to make Simpson a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1915. For many scientists, this could easily be the pinnacle of a career yet there was much more to come now he had shown everyone what he could do, in terms of both his own research and the honours received. He took on the role of Director of the Meteorological Office in London from 1920-38 – where he studied lightning, modified the Beaufort wind force scale and became the longest serving director in the Office’s history – and he was also knighted in 1935 and would go on to achieve honorary doctorates from institutions as far flung as former employer Manchester, Sydney and Aberdeen.
Even retirement could not stop Simpson from aiding the world with his scientific mind.
While the life and success of the man can be easily summed up through his long career and recognitions, it is also important to remember that he gave his service to his country in his during both world wars. In the first, in 1916, George entered army service as an advisor in Mesopotamia; in the second, he was called out of retirement to take over Kew Observatory, where he researched thunderstorms until 1947 – at which point he would have been approaching his 70th birthday and was apparently hindered in his work by deafness. This lack of hearing did not dampen his enthusiasm, however, and ten years later a paper was published where Simpson had developed a number of earlier theories, showing his keen mind and desire for progress.
Sir George Clarke Simpson’s ongoing legacy in the the world of meteorology and his memorial in Derby.
George died on January 1st 1965 leaving an important mark on his profession. In his home town of Derby, he has been remembered with the latest in their series of blue plaques – with the additional honour of being the first to have a plaque with a QR code so visitors can learn more about the man and his life. The plaque was erected at the most fitting Derby location, his former home on East St, and there was another nice touch in that a representative of the Royal Meteorological Society aided the unveiling.
The inscription on the plaque is quite simple,“meteorologist on Capt. Scott’s Antarctic expedition & pioneer of modern weather forecasting”, but it makes an important point because he was more than just the man that helped Scott on that one mission and deserves to remembered for his greater impact on his discipline. The expedition to the South Pole may not have been a complete success and Simpson’s misunderstanding about the continent’s weather played a part in that, but this was one tragic error in a long career full of papers and findings that shaped our understanding of meteorology today. This undeniable impact is why the British Antarctic Survey’s Ice and Climate building is named after him and why there is also the Simpson Glacier, Simpson Glacier Tongue and Simpson Peak in the Scott Mountains of Antarctica.