A Biography of Neil B. Ward
by Gene Rhoden
Storm Track, November 30, 1990
© Copyright 1990 Gene Rhoden
Neil Burgher Ward was born in Purcell, Oklahoma on June 26, 1914 to the family of William Harrison Ward, whose father was one of the original "89ers". Ward, who many consider to be "the father of the storm chase", was a research scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Oklahoma. He held this position from 1964, the year the laboratory was organized, until his death in 1972. During his early years, Neil attended the University of Oklahoma with an initial interest in mechanical engineering. In lg39, he began working for the National Weather Service as a weather observer. Over the next two decades, Ward's duty stations included Brownsville, Swan Island, forecaster-in-training in Fort Worth, aviation forecaster in Waco, and meteorologist-in-charge at Laredo. Starting in late 1956, with the aid of two scholarships, Neil attended graduate school at Texas A & M University, the University of Oklahoma, and Colorado State. He obtained formal training in the area of fluid mechanics, which he used intensely during later research. Neil Ward was well on his way to become one of our true storm pioneers.
It was in the early 1950's that Neil began to show an intense interest in atmospheric vortices. On family outings out west, he would always keep an eye out for dust devils. If one formed close, he would try to intercept it, even if it meant giving the family a grand tour down an old dirt section road. He wanted to experience what it was like to be inside the vortex, to feel the tightness of it's circulation and savor it's fleeting existence. On one particular occasion, Neil sighted a large dust devil in a field beside the road. He left the car on foot and ran for the intercept...only to watch the circulation pass directly over his car which he left moments before! Neil also began "chasing" storms during this period as well, occasionally inviting neighbors along for the ride.
Of the many storm chases in which Neil Ward conducted during his lifetime, few were recorded or preserved in such vivid detail as the chase of May 4, 1961. On this day, Ward documented a large, multiple vortex tornado 3 miles northwest of Geary, Oklahoma. What made this account such a milestone was that Neil, after having made prior arrangements with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP), was able to ride in the patrol vehicles and remain in contact with the radar operator at Oklahoma City through the police radio system. This allowed Neil to correlate the hook-echo circulation, as seen on radar, with the visual sighting of a major tornado. All this was accomplished back in 1961!
In the mid-1950's, Neil Ward became quite involved in tornado vortex modelling. Much of this research was developed in the garage of his home. In 1956, Neil constructed his first "tornado simulator". He was the FIRST to produce multiple vortices in the laboratory. Several years later, Neil built a second "improved" simulator which resulted in a major contribution to the science of vortex modelling. His improvement consisted of placing a honeycomb-like structure between the exhaust fan and the vortex chamber. The result was a dynamic separation between the exhaust fan and the vortex it created which allowed him to more accurately reproduce the dynamics of a tornado cyclone and investigate the variables controlling the formation of a central downdraft in the circulation.
In his later years, Neil Ward became quite interested in an unusual meteorological connection. Could sea surface temperatures be an important factor in influencing the severe weather season over Oklahoma? Some of Neil's ideas on this subject were actually restated recently in a major observational program known as GUFMEX, which involved NSSL. This program, conducted after Neil's death, searched for clues to the processes of airmass modification over the Gulf of Mexico and the characteristics of modified polar air returning from the Gulf coast.
Neil Ward passed away on April 12, 1972, due to a heart ailment. His career in meteorology spanned 33 years. He was truly a man before his time who contributed greatly to severe storms research. One could only imagine what might have been if he was still around today. April 14, 1972, marked the ending and beginning of sorts. Neil Ward was laid to rest on this day. It was also the FIRST official chase day for the cooperative Tornado Intercept Project (TIP) between NSSL and the University of Oklahoma. But on the afternoon of Neil's funeral, a dryline passedi shifting moods from anticipation to ease. It was as if nature herself created a moment of bonding reverence. There would be no storms this day.