Decades into his career, well after every tornado around the world was classified according to a scale bearing his name, the scientist known as “Mr. Tornado” had never actually seen a tornado.
Every time there was a nearby thunderstorm, colleagues said, Prof. Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita would race to the top of the building that housed his lab at the University of Chicago to see if he could spot a tornado forming.
The dream finally came true in the spring of 1982, when Fujita happened to stop off during a field trip to watch a Doppler radar feed at Denver International Airport. Ahead, in an approaching wall of thunderstorms, a small white funnel formed and rotated as Fujita’s camera clicked furiously. That night, he and his students had a party to celebrate Mr. Tornado’s first tornado.
It couldn’t have happened to anyone more well-deserving. Born on Oct. 23, 1920, Fujita shaped the field of meteorology in the 20th century. His scale for classifying the strength of a tornado is still used today, half a century after its introduction; he made pioneering contributions to our understanding of tornadoes as well as to the use of satellites; and he is responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of lives through the discovery of microbursts—a breakthrough that helped transform airline safety.
Fujita, who died in 1998, is most recognizable as the “F” in the F0 to F5 scale, which categorizes the strength of tornadoes based on wind speeds and ensuing damage. Originally devised in 1971, a modified version of the Fujita Scale continues to be used today.
“But he was so much more than ‘Mr. Tornado,’” said Prof. Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist who worked on the same floor as Fujita for many years. “He had a way to beautifully organize observations that would speak the truth of the phenomenon he was studying. He taught people how to think about these storms in a creative way that gets the storm, its behavior. He has so many legacies.”