Wexler, Harry

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(b. Fall River, Massachusetts, 15 March 1911;

d. Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 11 August 1962), meteorology.

Wexler was one of the most influential meteorologists of the twentieth century. Mentored by Carl-Gustaf Rossby and Hurd C. Willet, Wexler held research and teaching positions in meteorology with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the U.S. Weather Bureau, the University of Chicago, and the U.S. Air Force. As chief of research for the Weather Bureau, he was involved in the development of a number of new technologies, including airborne observations of hurricanes, sounding rockets, radar, the use of electronic computers for numerical weather prediction, and satellite meteorology. As chief scientist for the U.S. expedition to the Antarctic for the International Geophysical Year, he kept a journal for the years 1955–1959 that is a detailed record of the organization and the conduct of the mission.

Early Years. Harry Wexler was the third son of Russian immigrants Samuel and Mamie (Hornstein) Wexler. He was interested in science at an early age and enjoyed “mathematical recreations” with his brothers and friends. His scientific interests were stimulated by his physics teacher, Leslie W. Orcutt, who was also his baseball coach. Wexler claimed his interest in meteorology developed while delivering newspapers through fair weather and foul. He shared a common interest in meteorology with his childhood friend and future brother-in-law, Jerome Namias.

After graduating from Durfee High School in 1928, Wexler attended Harvard University, where he majored in mathematics, graduating in 1932 magna cum laude. From 1932 to 1934 Wexler attended MIT, where he studied meteorology under the mentorship of Rossby, Willet, and Bernhard Haurwitz. He also worked for Charles Franklin Brooks as a part-time research assistant at Blue Hill Observatory. During this period he published several papers on atmospheric turbidity, air mass formation, and the behavior of frontal surfaces.

U.S. Weather Bureau. Wexler began his lifelong affiliation with the Weather Bureau in 1934, working as an assistant meteorologist in Chicago and Washington, D.C. He was assigned to develop operational techniques of “air mass or frontal analysis,” a system developed in Norway by the Bergen School. He also helped develop “isentropic analysis,” which was a favorite technique of Rossby. During this time he published papers on atmospheric turbidity, warm-type occluded weather fronts, lower atmospheric cooling, and the structure of polar continental air. Wexler married Hannah Paipert on 3 December 1934 in Chicago.

The Weather Bureau sent him back to MIT in 1937–1938 for further study. There he conducted research, funded by the Weather Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on the general circulation of the atmosphere and developed techniques useful in extended or long-range forecasting. In 1938 he was promoted to associate meteorologist in the Weather Bureau. MIT awarded him the ScD degree in 1939; his dissertation was titled, “Observed Transverse Circulations in the Atmosphere and Their Climatological Implications.” From June to September 1940, Wexler served as supervisor of forecasting at LaGuardia Field, New York.

Following the outbreak of war in Europe, the U.S. military began a program to train weather forecasters. Wexler took a leave of absence from the Weather Bureau in 1940 to teach in this program at the University of Chicago as an assistant professor of meteorology. In 1941 he returned to the Weather Bureau in Washington as senior meteorologist in charge of training and research, working to assist in defense preparations related to meteorology. In 1942 he accepted a commission as captain in the U.S. Army and served as the senior instructor of meteorology to the Army Air Force (AAF) Aviation Cadet School at Grand Rapids, Michigan. While in this position, he joined the University Meteorological Committee established to assist the military services in matters related to meteorological services. Following his promotion to

major in 1943, Wexler worked in the Pentagon as research executive, Weather Division, AAF Headquarters, in charge of research and development. The task at hand was to utilize meteorology more effectively in aerial navigation, bombing ballistics, and weather forecasts for military operations.

First Hurricane Flight. On 14 September 1944 Major Harry Wexler participated in what may be called the first research reconnaissance flight into a hurricane, with pilot Colonel Floyd Wood in a Douglas A-20 “Havoc.” In his published account of the mission, he described the data collected, concluding, “that the major portion of this hurricane cloud was caused by a strong but narrow area of ascending air near the center of the storm and that outside this area, descending air was found” (Wexler, 1945b in Rigby and Keehn, 1963).

Chief of Scientific Services Division. Following his honorable discharge from the military in January 1946 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, Wexler returned to the U.S. Weather Bureau, becoming the chief of the Special Scientific Services division. As head of research at the Weather Bureau, Wexler encouraged the development of new technologies, including weather radar, digital computing, and sounding rockets, and sponsored a study of the atmospheres of planets other than Earth. He served on numerous panels and committees, including the military’s Research and Development Board and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Subcommittee on Meteorological Problems. He was a liaison to the Institute for Advanced Study’s meteorology program, a delegate to the Toronto meetings of the International Meteorological Organization, and he chaired the U.S. delegation on aerology. He was a member of the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards for the Atomic Energy Committee and served as a U.S. delegate to the “Atoms-for-Peace” Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955. He was the vice president of the American Meteorological Society, and the chairman of the Upper-Atmosphere Committee of the American Geophysical Union. He also chaired the NACA Special Committee for the Upper Atmosphere; the Geophysical Research Panel of the Scientific Advisory Board to the Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force; and a study group on Meteorological Aspects of the Effects of Atomic Radiation for the National Academy of Science. He served on the National Research Council Space Science Board as well as its Committee on Arctic and Antarctic Research.

Wexler was an enthusiastic promoter of the idea of a World Weather Watch, which became a reality in 1963. According to Jerome Namias, “As the coverage of meteorological data over the world reaches the stage recommended in the report detailing the World Weather Watch in which Wexler played a major role, meteorologists may reinstitute the search for interactions with the help of synoptic as well as statistical tools, thereby providing more concrete evidence to assist in the formulation of physical theories” (Namias et al., 1963, p. 482).

Mauna Loa Observatory. Wexler was closely associated with the Weather Bureau Research Station, Mauna Loa Observatory. The observatory staff directly reported to Wexler and he gave it a special measure of his interest and attention. He visited the observatory often and took intense pleasure in the ecology of the lush rain forest. A number of atmospheric baseline and other measurements were conducted there, including, significantly, the ongoing series of carbon dioxide measurements begun by Charles David Keeling in 1958.

International Geophysical Year and Satellite Meteorology. During the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–1958, Wexler served in a number of positions for the U.S. National Committee (USNC), including as a member of the Technical Panel on Meteorology, deputy to chief of the Weather Bureau F. W. Reichelderfer on the USNC/IGY and its Executive Committee, chief scientist of the USNC/IGY Antarctic Programs and consultant to the Antarctic Committee, member of the ad hoc Arctic and Equatorial Committee, and member of the ad hoc Panel for Radioactivity of the Air. In 1957 Wexler wrote a classic paper on “Meteorology in the International Geophysical Year” that highlighted some of the fundamental issues in the understanding of the atmosphere, meteorology’s relationship to other geophysical sciences, and the importance of Antarctic science, climate science, and weather satellites. This was a timely paper, as Wexler states “the answers to many of these problems will have to wait for the digestion of data obtained during the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year and probably also for the obtaining of additional data from future International Geophysical Years. The world’s geophysicists bear a heavy responsibility to future generations in insuring that basic environmental measurements are carefully recorded and that new ones are initiated” (Wexler, 1957b, in Rigby and Keehn, 1963).

Wexler was a big promoter of the use of satellites in meteorology and was actively involved in the Joint Meteorological Satellite Advisory Committee (JMSAC) in 1959; he commented at the First National Conference on Peaceful Uses of Space: “A system of satellites of two types would be ideal for charting the world’s weather. One system would circle the earth over the poles; the other would circle around the equator. Both types of satellites could send their observations into a central office. They could also pick up and transmit information from automatic weather stations located in uninhabited areas” (Wexler, 1957a, in Rigby and Keehn, 1963). He believed that information gathered from satellites on the international scale would be of great value to everyone in the world for warning of severe weather and other weather changes. In 1961 he served as the lead negotiator for the United States in talks with the Soviet Union concerning the joint use of meteorological satellites.

Wexler was the author of over fifty published papers on various subjects, including radiative cooling of the air, polar anticyclones, atmospheric turbidity, structure of hurricanes, and upper atmosphere temperatures and dynamic connections with the lower atmosphere (Rigby and Keehn, 1963). He died suddenly of a heart attack while vacationing in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He was survived by his wife and daughters, Susan Carol and Libby. His wife donated his papers to the Library of Congress in 1963, with additional papers received in 1971 from the Department of Commerce. Wexler’s breadth of knowledge and wide-ranging interests are evident in the memorial issue of the Monthly Weather Review in December 1963, which contained thirty contributions by leading meteorologists. The number of contributions was so large that the memorial issue was expanded from an originally planned single issue to the combined issue of three numbers.

Awards and Honors. Wexler was the recipient of numerous awards and honors. He received medals from three branches of the military: the U.S. Army Air Medal for his 1944 flight into the “Great Atlantic Hurricane,” the U.S. Air Force Award for Exceptional Service in 1956 for his work as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board to the Chief Staff, and the U.S. Navy Distinguished Public Service Award in 1959 for contributions to the USNC/IGY Antarctic Programs. He earned the Robert M. Losey Award in 1946 from the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences in recognition of outstanding contributions to the science of meteorology as applied to aeronautics, and the Department of Commerce awarded him an Exceptional Service Medal in 1958 for contributions to the science of meteorology and for outstanding leadership in the 1957–1958 IGY Program. In 1961 he received the Career Service Award of the National Civil Service League. Wexler was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1956, a Fellow of the American Astronautical Society in 1960, and a member of the Cosmos Club in 1961. Wexler Crater on the Moon was named after him, and in 1977, the University of Wisconsin–Madison established the Harry Wexler Professorship of Meteorology.

Wexler was a dedicated scientist and hands-on administrator who found time to do his own research, encourage the work of others, and communicate the excitement of scientific research to school groups and the general public. An admirer of Benjamin Franklin’s scientific work, he practiced what Franklin had advised: “He who would master nature must obey her laws. He must learn her laws and then obey them.”


The Harry Wexler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 13,200 items, cover the years 1929–1962 and contain information relating to all the major areas of his career. For a comprehensive bibliography, see Malcolm Rigby and Pauline A. Keehn, “Bibliography of the Publications of Harry Wexler,” Monthly Weather Review 91 (December 1963): 477–481.


“Turbidities of American Air Masses and Conclusions Regarding the Seasonal Variation in Atmospheric Dust Content.” Monthly Weather Review 62 (1934): 397–402.

“Analysis of a Warm-Front-Type Occlsuion.” Monthly Weather Review 63 (1935): 213–221.

“Cooling in the Lower Atmosphere and the Structure of Polar Continental Air.” Monthly Weather Review 17 (1936): 122–136.

“The Structure of the September 1944 Hurricane When off Cape Henry, Virginia.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 26 (1945): 156–159.

“Meteorology in the International Geophysical Year.” Scientific Monthly 84 (1957): 141–145.

“TIROS I.” Monthly Weather Review 88 (1960): 79–87.


Belanger, Dian Olson. Deep Freeze: The United States, the International Geophysical Year, and the Origins of Antarctica’s Age of Science. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2006.

Namias, Jerome, et al. “Contributions in Memory of Harry Wexler.” Monthly Weather Review 91 (1963): 477–748.

Price, Saul, and Jack C. Pales. “Mauna Loa Observatory: The First Five Years.” Monthly Weather Review 91 (1963): 665–680.

U.S. Weather Bureau. Weather Bureau Topics 10, no. 12 (1951).

Sepideh Yalda