The University of Chicago News Office
November 20, 1998 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
(773) 702-8366

Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita, 1920-1998

University of Chicago meteorologist Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita, who devised the internationally accepted standard for measuring tornado severity and discovered microbursts and their link to commercial airline crashes, died Thursday morning at his Chicago home.

Although Fujita, 78, had been ill for the past two years and recently bedridden, he continued to work. “He did research from his bed until the very end,” said James Partacz, research meteorologist at the University of Chicago’s Wind Research Laboratory.

Fujita’s colleagues say he had an uncanny ability to figure out the mysterious workings of thunderstorms, tornadoes and microbursts.

“From limited observations he would theorize how things work, and it often was left to the rest of us to come along and prove his theories,” said Jim Wilson, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. “There was an insight he had, this gut feeling. He often had ideas way before the rest of us could even imagine them.”

Fujita’s instinctive understanding of atmospheric phenomena is “just one of those things you can’t replace,” Wilson said. “He was a controversial character at times because of the way he did his science. But there was no question that he had insight that very few people had.”

While many meteorologists today rely upon computers to do their analyses, Fujita preferred to do his own, according to Chicago meteorologist Duane Stiegler. “He used to say that the computer doesn’t understand these things,” said Stiegler, who worked closely with Fujita from 1977 until the latter’s death.

In the 1950s, Fujita began conducting pioneering research in the field of mesometeorology, the study of middle-sized, atmospheric phenomena such as hurricanes and tornadoes. By the end of his career, he had received nearly $12 million in grants from agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.

Fujita made the first color movie of planet Earth in 1967, a technique now widely used on television weather reports. Fujita made the movie using 34 color pictures taken at 30-minute intervals from the ATS-III satellite whose orbit provided a stationary view of the Earth. The satellite was equipped with a camera stable enough to accurately determine cloud motion relative to the Earth’s rotating surface.

“After devising the Fujita Tornado Scale with his wife Sumiko in 1971, he became known as ‘Mr. Tornado,’” Partacz said. Fujita’s six-point F-scale ranges from F0, winds of 40 to 72 miles an hour and minor damage, to F5, winds of 261 to 319 miles an hour and massive destruction.

“His investigation of the Eastern Airlines Flight 66 aircraft accident in 1975 at New York’s JFK Airport led him to discover the killer winds he called microbursts,” Partacz said. “This important discovery helped to prevent microburst accidents that previously had killed more than 500 airline passengers at major U.S. airports.”

The starburst patterns of uprooted trees found in forests following tornadoes led Fujita to his theory of microburst winds. He had seen similar patterns years before —when he had visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima just weeks after the atomic bombs were dropped to observe shock-wave effects on trees and structures in the devastated areas.

The theory stirred controversy for years. Many meteorologists found it difficult to believe in the concept of a microburst, a small-sized downdraft that could induce an outburst of 150-mile-an-hour winds on or near the ground.

But Fujita continued to collect data in critical field experiments with imaginative acronyms: NIMROD (Northern Illinois Meteorological Research on Downburst in Chicago’s western suburbs, including O’Hare Airport, 1978-79), JAWS (Joint Airport Weather Studies, Denver, 1982-86), and MIST (Microburst and Severe Thunderstorm project, Huntsville, Ala., 1986-88). Fujita’s data eventually led to the widespread acceptance of the microburst concept and to the installation of Doppler radar at airports to improve aviation safety.

Fujita was born Oct. 23, 1920, in Kitakyushu City, Japan. He graduated from the Meiji College of Technology in 1943 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. In 1944, he became an assistant professor in the physics department of his alma mater, which later became known as the Kyushu Institute of Technology.

He earned his doctoral degree from Tokyo University in 1953 upon completing an analytical study of typhoons.

Fujita observed a severe thunderstorm on Aug. 24, 1947, from a mountain observatory in Japan. On the basis of wind and pressure measurements taken during the storm, he wrote a report speculating about downflowing air drafts inside the storm. He sent the report to Horace Byers, Professor and Chairman of the University of Chicago Meteorology Department, who would soon become a fatherly mentor to Fujita.

Byers brought Fujita to Chicago in 1953, where the latter worked as a research associate in the Meteorology Department until he returned to Japan to obtain his immigrant visa in 1955. Fujita was back in Chicago the following year, serving as director of the Mesometeorology Research Project until 1962.

He became Associate Professor in Geophysical Sciences in 1962 and Professor in 1965. Fujita directed the Satellite and Mesometeorology Research Project from 1964 to 1987 and the Wind Research Laboratory since 1988 until his death.

The University named Fujita the Charles Merriam Distinguished Service Professor in 1989. He retired from teaching in 1990 at the age of 70 but continued to conduct research.

Among Fujita’s many national and international awards is NASA’s Public Service Medal, received in 1979. In 1989, France’s National Academy of Air and Space awarded him the Vermeil Gold Medal, which was accompanied by a return flight for he and his wife from Paris to New York in the cockpit of a supersonic Concorde. When he received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Star, from the Japanese government in 1991, Fujita was personally decorated by Japanese Prime Minister Kaifu and blessed by Emperor Akihito.

Fujita is survived by his wife, Sumiko, of Chicago, and a son, Kazuya, a geology professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 29, at the Lake View Funeral Home, 1458 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago. For information call (773) 472-6300. Photos Available:
Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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