Anderson, Charles Edward 1919–1994
Charles Edward Anderson 1919–1994
Charles Anderson was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in meteorology. He began his career as a weather officer for the Army Air Forces during World War II and served with the famous Tuskegee Airmen. He later became a professor and researcher into cumulus clouds, severe storms, and tornadoes. By the end of his career Anderson had gained national recognition for his use of satellite imagery to forecast severe storms.
Charles Edward Anderson was born on August 13, 1919, on a farm in Clayton, Missouri. His mother was from Fulton, Mississippi, and his father was from northern Mississippi. His paternal grandfather was a wealthy landowner in the state. While his father wanted to follow in his grandfather’s business, the Jim Crow laws at that time were very oppressive, so he decided to move to Missouri. Anderson’s father and mother met in St. Louis. The young married couple bought a farm in Clayton, Missouri, where they raised their seven children. However, when the Great Depression hit the United States in 1929, the family moved back to St. Louis. Even though Anderson spent much of his youth on a farm, his mother exposed her children to a wide range of activities. Anderson recalled spending a lot of time at art museums, botanical gardens, the zoo, and the theater. His mother also frequently read to her children and Anderson became an avid reader himself. While living on the farm, Anderson received a collection of more than one hundred books from an older boy in the area, and he spent his afternoons devouring the books. Once the Andersons moved to the city, he spent much of his free time at the public library.
As a young child Anderson was interested in just about everything. However, when he started high school, he became increasingly drawn to the field of science. His teachers had high expectations for him because they had already taught his three older sisters, who had excelled academically. Anderson lived up to these expectations, and graduated as the valedictorian of the class of 1937 at Sumner High School. He received a scholarship to study at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry in 1941, and graduated third in his class. As an undergraduate, Anderson met his future wife, fellow student Marjorie Anderson, who was from Cary, North Carolina.
Anderson graduated from college in the midst of World War II, and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. At that time, the Air Force was not a separate branch of the military but was a part of the Army. It was through this experience that Anderson became a meteorologist. “To tell you the truth, … it was mainly by process of elimination,” Anderson told Earl Droessler, in an interview Droessler conducted for the American Meteorological Society. “I wanted to become a member of the Army Air Corps and I looked over the physical requirements to join the Army Air Corps as a cadet and it seemed as if the only option open to me was that of meteorology.” Anderson was sent to study at the University of Chicago from July of 1942 until May of 1943, along with 150 other cadets. He was subjected
At a Glance…
Born Charles Edward Anderson on August 13, 1919, in Clayton, MO; died on October 21, 1994, in Durham, NC; married Marjorie Anderson, 1943; children: Cheryle Willis and Linda Anderson, Education: Lincoln University, B.S., 1941; University of Chicago, meteorological certification, 1943; Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, M.S., 1948; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ph.D., 1960. Military: United States Army Air Corps, weather officer, 1942–60.
Career: U.S. Army Air Corps, Weather officer, 1942–46, Watson Laboratories, research and development officer, 1948, Geophysics Research Laboratory, researcher, 1949–60; Atmospheric Analysis Group, Douglass Aircraft Missiles and Space Systems Div., 1960–65; Office of Federal Coordination in Meteorology, Environmental Science and Service Administration, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, director, 1965–66; University of Wisconsin, professor of space science and engineering, and professor of meteorology, 1966–87, Afro–American Studies Dept, chairman, 1970, Dept. of Meteorology, chairman, 1970, associate dean, 1978; Dept. of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, professor, 1987–90.
Memberships: Aviation Advisory Panel, National Center for Atmospheric Research; American Association for the Advancement of Science; Sigma Xi; Southeast Severe Storms Consortium.
Awards: Charles Anderson Award, American Meteorological Society, established 1999.
to a demanding schedule that included 18 to 21 credit hours of classes a quarter, in addition to physical education, weapons training, and Army intelligence. After his graduation Anderson wanted to study tropical meteorology in Puerto Rico, but instead was assigned to be a weather officer for the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military airmen in the United States. Before relocating to Tuskegee, Alabama, Anderson made a brief stop in St. Louis to marry Marjorie Anderson.
The Tuskegee Airmen were assigned to escort bomber flights over Italy, Austria, and southern Germany. They earned the distinctive reputation of never losing a bomber. “All in all that was an interesting experience because there we had an all–black training operation to produce fighter pilots and bomber pilots and crews at this one place in the country,” Anderson told Droessler. “The Army Air Corps was segregated at that time so these fellows couldn’t get training anywhere else.” After his service in Tuskegee, Anderson served as a squadron weather officer, training replacement pilots at Selfridge Field, Michigan, Walterboro, South Carolina, Gotman Field, Kentucky, and Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio.
By that time the war was over and the Army Air Corps was reducing its ranks, so Anderson took advantage of an opportunity to study high polymer chemistry in Brooklyn. From 1946 to 1948 he studied chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he earned a master of science degree. Anderson was still in the Army Air Corps and was assigned to a research and development position at Watson Laboratories in New Jersey. Anderson oversaw the activities of notable German scientists, such as Rudolph Penndorf, Max Diem, Heinz Lettau, and Eberhardt Wahl, who immigrated to the United States after the war. In 1949 Anderson became part of a startup group for the Geophysics Research Laboratory in Boston. Anderson began working in aerosols at this time and became involved in promoting Air Force research activities. In particular, Anderson worked with Japanese researchers studying vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy, which helped researchers understand how chemical reactions took place in the high atmosphere because of vacuum conditions.
While at the Geophysics Research Laboratory in the early 1950s, Anderson became extensively involved in cloud research. He served as a cloud physics project officer for Project Greenhouse, which involved exploding warheads from towers to test the radioactivity of the debris. He also developed a technique to mask the trails of jet aircraft so they were no longer visible in the sky. During this time Anderson edited a volume called Cumulus Dynamics, which looked at the physics of how cumulus clouds developed, and also wrote a publication on cloud seeding. Anderson’s interesting work on clouds led him to further his education in the field. In 1955 he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing a dissertation called “A Study of the Pulsating Growth of Cumulus Clouds,” and earning his Ph.D. in 1960. He was the first African–American male to earn a Ph.D. in meteorology.
After graduation Anderson moved to Los Angeles to join Douglass Aircraft Missiles and Space Systems Division, where he headed the atmospheric analysis group. “I thought this was a great challenge because it would put me into the space age and all the hoopla and glamour surrounding that new era,” Anderson explained to the American Meteorological Society. The group was responsible for providing information about the structure of the atmosphere in order to determine launch dates for spacecraft. While at Douglass, Anderson also worked on a mission to track an eclipse. In 1963 he joined several other scientists in a plane that flew a parallel course to the sun moving across the earth, and the experience was filmed for National Geographic. Anderson also became involved with IBM computers at Douglass and he built on the work of Joanne Simpson to produce the first moist cloud model on a computer.
Anderson decided to leave Douglass to return to meteorology. From 1965 to 1966 he worked in Washington, D.C., as the director of the Office of Federal Coordination in Meteorology in the Environmental Science Service Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. In this position Anderson established the first World Weather Watch program.
Despite her husband’s satisfying work, Marjorie Anderson did not want to raise her two daughters in Washington, D.C., so Anderson began looking for job opportunities elsewhere. He was approached by Vern Suomi to come to the University of Wisconsin as the assistant director of Suomi’s new Space Science and Engineering Center. Anderson was offered the position of a full professor with tenure, an offer he could not refuse. He became the first tenured African–American professor at the University of Wisconsin.
In 1966 Anderson began his 20–year career at the University of Wisconsin. “When I first went I set up their cloud physics activity, but for the first few years my main activity was getting the Space Science and Engineering Center off the ground,” Anderson told Droessler. “When I arrived it consisted of a big room that Vern Suomi occupied and he had this huge stack of papers and books in the middle of the floor. My first task was to hire a secretary to help get things organized.” After spending a few years administering the new center, Anderson was able to focus again on his research and teaching. In 1970 he participated in the Northeast Hail Research Experiment, where he spent three or four summers in Colorado studying hail–bearing clouds, at a time when scientists were first able to use satellite data in their research. Anderson took full advantage of the satellite data as well as the growing field of computer science in order to study storms and tornadoes. During his career at Wisconsin, Anderson was professor of space science and engineering, professor of meteorology, chairman of the Contemporary Trends course, chairman of the Afro–American Studies Department, and chairman of the Meteorology Department. In 1978 he was appointed associate dean of the University.
In 1987 Anderson moved to North Carolina State University in Raleigh where he became a professor in the Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences. Anderson continued to use satellite images to study severe storms and tornadoes. While remote sensing had been used for oceanography at North Carolina State, Anderson applied the technology to the field of meteorology. He revolutionized the field by introducing new analytical schemes and high–powered statistics, gaining national recognition for storm forecasting. In particular, Anderson discovered ways to identify tornadie storms by the way they spin. This led to scientists’ ability to predict severe storms and tornadoes up to an hour before they arrived.
During his tenure at North Carolina State University, Anderson gained a reputation for his professional demeanor and personal decorum. Dr. Len Pietrafesa, who was the head of the Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences while Anderson was there, told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that “Charlie had impeccably high standards for both his students as well as his colleagues.” According to Pietrafesa, Anderson challenged fellow faculty members to strive for high quality research and to be truly productive members of the research community. Anderson officially retired from North Carolina State in 1990. However, he kept working part–time as part of the Southeast Severe Storms Consortium. In the interview with Droessler, Anderson stated that he planned to continue to work as long as he was healthy. “I just don’t view myself as a senior citizen committed to sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair,” Anderson explained.
Anderson continued working until his death on October 21, 1994, from cancer. In 1999 the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) established the Charles Anderson Award to honor his contributions to meteorology. According to an NCAR news release in 2000, the award was established “to recognize individuals or organizations for outstanding contributions to the promotion of educational outreach, educational service, and diversity in the atmospheric science community.” As Pietrafesa told CBB, Anderson “broke the barrier for underrepresented groups in atmospheric science.” Anderson actively encouraged minority students to attend college. He also helped establish African–American fraternity chapters at both the University of Wisconsin and North Carolina State University, and served as a role model for African–American students. To Droessler, Anderson summarized his career as follows: “I look back on my career as being very productive and very enjoyable because I’ve had the opportunity to work with outstanding people and accomplish some nice things.”
Despite the fact that Anderson chose meteorology as a career by “process of elimination,” he excelled in the field. Through his military service and academic career, Anderson established himself as a leader in atmospheric research. As the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in meteorology, Anderson encouraged other African Americans to excel in the physical sciences.
“A Study of the Pulsating Growth of Cumulus Clouds,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1960.
Notable Black American Scientists, Gale, 1998.
St. Louis Dispatch, October 27, 1994.
Princeton University Faces of Science, http://www.princeton.edu/~mcbrown/display/anderson.html
UCAR Communications, http://www.ucar.edu/
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a transcript of an interview with Earl Droessler on June 24, 1992 for the American Meteorological Society, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Tape Recorded Interview Project, and an interview with Len Pietrafesa for Contemporary Black Biography on October 24, 2002.
—Janet P. Stamatel
cu·mu·lus / ˈkyoōmyələs/ • n. (pl. -li / -ˌlī; -lē/ ) Meteorol. a cloud forming rounded masses heaped on each other above a flat base at fairly low altitude. DERIVATIVES: cu·mu·lous / -ləs/ adj.
1. From the Latin cumulus meaning ‘heap’, a dense, isolated, and clearly defined cloud with vertical growth in bulges or domes, and a flattened, darker base. Sharply outlined, bulging cloud tops indicate vigorous growth. Occasionally a more ragged form occurs. See also CLOUD CLASSIFICATION.
2. See CUMULATE.