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Pauline Austin; developed weather radar after WWII

By Katherine Landergan
Globe Correspondent / October 12, 2011

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To those who knew Dr. Pauline M. Austin, it seemed as though there was nothing she could not accomplish.

While raising a family, she became one of the first women to work in the field of weather radar research and was recognized by The New York Times during World War II as one of the top female scholars aiding the war effort.

“She mystified people,’’ said her daughter, Carol West of Gainesville, Fla. “Here she was with this career, two young children, playing golf, sewing, canning green beans. You’d think, ‘What can this woman not do?’ ’’

Dr. Austin, the only female member of the Weather Radar Research Project at MIT at its inception in 1946, died Aug. 29 at the Oak Hammock retirement community in Gainesville of complications of a stroke. She was 94 and had previously lived in Concord for decades.

In 1946, Dr. Austin was asked to participate in the Weather Radar Research Project at MIT, the first study to take an in-depth look at how radar technology could be used to monitor weather, said Earle Williams, a research scientist at MIT.

Dr. Austin focused on comparing the radar measurement of rain with the actual amount of rainfall, he said, and is best known for researching what is known as the “bright band.’’

“A first concern was analysis of the bright band, the area between rain and snow in storms, understanding of which was needed for basic recognition and classification of weather patterns,’’ Dr. Austin told her alma mater, Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., for a profile published online.

In 1956, Dr. Austin was appointed project director, a title she held until retiring in 1980.

Mel Stone, a radar researcher at Lincoln Laboratory and former member of the research project, said Dr. Austin always gave credit to others on the team. Even when she wrote a chapter in a book detailing the research team’s accomplishments, she barely mentioned herself, he said.

“She was just straightforward, very conscientious, a very sweet person,’’ Stone said.

In January 1942, while Dr. Austin was completing her doctorate at MIT, The New York Times named her one of the top female scholars aiding in the war effort.

The article, “Special Roles Vital to Nation Filled by Women Scholars,’’ noted that she had done work with MIT in research communications.

For security reasons, she was not allowed to discuss her findings in depth, the Times reported, and only disclosed that the research “concerns problems of electromagnetic waves in the ionosphere.’’

She conducted that research when merely being a woman at MIT was an accomplishment, and recalled that often she was the only woman in a class.

“We were a small group of women at MIT then, only four of us in the graduate program in physics,’’ she told Wilson College.

Pauline Morrow, who was known as Polly, was born in Kingsville, Texas. She was educated at home by her mother, father, and aunt, and attended the former North Avenue Presbyterian School in Atlanta for her sophomore and senior years of high school, playing on the basketball and tennis teams.

At Wilson College, she joined basketball and field hockey intramural teams, and discovered her love for physics.

But the school only had a limited number of physics courses, so she pursued a bachelor’s in mathematics, graduating in 1938.

“The ablest student that I had practically anywhere was Pauline Morrow Austin,’’ said Dorothy Weeks, a mentor to Dr. Austin at Wilson College, in an oral history posted online by the Niels Bohr Library & Archives with the Center at the American Institute of Physics.

From Wilson College, Dr. Austin went to Smith College in Northampton, where she received a master’s in physics in 1939.

That same year, she began a physics doctoral program at MIT, from which she graduated in 1942.

While studying there, she met James M. Austin, who also was pursuing a doctorate.

In one course, she was given an assignment to complete mathematical equations based on the physics of swinging a golf club, their daughter said.

She said her mother did not know anything about golf and asked her father for help because he had a few golf clubs in his closet.

He had just immigrated to the United States from New Zealand, and his accent was thick.

“She couldn’t understand a word he said,’’ West said. “It was the only physics problem she flunked at MIT.’’

The two married in 1941, and Dr. Austin took up golf, a sport she participated in regularly for the rest of her life.

Nearly 10 years after they married, Dr. Austin periodically joined her husband, a meteorologist, on his nightly WBZ-TV broadcasts, giving New Englanders their first introduction to radar pictures as part of a television weather forecast.

James Austin, who was a consultant to the Army Air Corps during World War II and helped determine weather conditions conducive to the D-Day invasion, died in 2000.

In addition to her daughter Carol, Dr. Austin leaves another daughter, Doris Price of Annapolis, Md.; two grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Services have been held.

Dr. Austin’s other achievements included chairing the American Meteorological Society’s Committee on Radar Meteorology from 1958 to 1965. In 1974, she was the first woman elected a councilor of the society, and she served on the executive committee.

She also was a physics lecturer at Wellesley College from 1953 to 1955, and was featured in the Globe on Oct. 7, 1962, when she was chosen to receive a Woman of Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.

“She was very humble about her achievements,’’ West said. “She didn’t think she was special. She was just a dedicated scientist.’’

Landergan can be reached at klandergan@globe.com.