Interview with Morley K. Thomas


Dr Taba recounts:

Morley K. Thomas was born on 19 August 1918 on a farm in Westminster Township, Middlesex County, near London, Ontario, Canada. His mother had been a rural public school teacher and his father was a farmer,who died six weeks after Morley was born, a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic. Morley grew up with his maternal grandparents, uncles and aunts. Education was important in the family; his grandfather, John Auckland, an enterprising farmer, supported his children in continuing their education. Before he started school in the spring of 1925, Morley had learned to read. It was a typical rural Ontario school, where one teacher dealt with about 45 pupils.

In 1931, he passed the “Entrance” examinations with honours, which qualified him to attend secondary school. He went to the Collegiate Institute in St. Thomas and obtained relatively good marks, especially in mathematics, and was active in sports.










Morley K. Thomas

He graduated in 1936 but, with the depression still existing he was uncertain as to what to do. He returned to the Collegiate for an extra year, concentrated on mathematics and even more sports. He was awarded two four-year scholarships in 1937 to attend the University of Western Ontario in London—a Leonard Foundation scholarship and a Sir Arthur Currie Memorial Scholarship, the latter based on both academics and athletics.

Mathematics was the only course Morley considered when he entered Western. The honours mathematics and physics programme called for a mandatory first year in general science and after that year he chose the actuarial science option. Morley was active in several sports and was a member of the 1939 championship rugby-football team. In the summer, he worked as a construction labourer. World War II in Europe began to affect all Canadians. By 1940, all male students were required to join the Canadian Officers Training Corps and Morley became a sergeant in artillery. But, in the spring of 1941, just before graduation, he was told of the need for mathematics and physics graduates to train as meteorologists for service with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Morley became one of the civilian meteorologists, or “metmen”. At the flying training schools they also taught meteorology to the student pilots and other aircrew. He joined the Meteorological Division for training in October 1941 and subsequently served for nearly four years with the RCAF.

The need for meteorologists escalated rapidly and, by 1944, nearly 400 had been recruited, trained and posted as civilians to RCAF stations. He took part in a 15 weeks’ course at the Meteorological Division headquarters in Toronto, and was posted to a Service Flying Training School where student pilots took their advanced training and graduated with their “wings”. The metmen were responsible for analysing the weather maps, preparing and issuing weather forecasts, briefing the students and instructors before flying periods began and conducting lecture courses in basic meteorology to the student pilots.

When the war was over, Morley requested and was granted a posting to the Climatological Section at the Meteorological Division headquarters in Toronto, where he arrived in October 1945. He had taken lectures in climatology from a university professor as part of the meteorological training but the treatment of the subject had not interested him. Unaware that there even was a Climatological Section at headquarters, he began compiling and interpreting local climate data from the available records. At that time, most meteorologists considered climatology to be a dull, boring subject and a dead-end discipline.

There were only about 12 people in the Climatological Section in late 1945 and most were employed in the classical clerical work of processing, archiving and publishing national climate data. Morley started establishing and developing quality-control measures which proved to be an excellent way to learn the practical side of climatology.  This was how our interviewee of this issue started his career in climatology; a career which brought his name to the top of the list of the best climatologists. Readers will find out further details in this interview. In the following paragraphs, some of the highlights of Morley’s professional life are mentioned.

For many years Morley was fortunate to work with and report to Clarence Boughner, who had an avid interest in WMO and represented Canada in CAgM as well as CCl. Boughner allowed him to develop and implement what might be called operational climatology and to get into applied climatology. The Climatology Section, from 12 or so people in late 1945 expanded to more than 100 within 15 years. Part of the new Department of Environment in 1971, the Service became the Atmospheric Environment Service and the Climatological Division became the Meteorological Applications Branch. In 1971, WMO Congress went through a similar exercise and CCl would have been dropped as a technical commission had not Helmut Landsberg defended it strongly and Congress settled for a name change.

Morley Thomas is pictured with H. Thom, G. O’Mahoney, J. Maher and C. Boughner







Relaxing after the third session of the Commission for Climatology in London in 1960. Morley Thomas is pictured (left) with H. Thom (USA), G. O’Mahoney (Australia), J. Maher (Australia) and C. Boughner (Canada).

Boughner retired in 1973 and after two years or so, Morley was promoted into his job. In 1978, with the climate issue heating up, it was decided there should be a separate climate unit and the Canadian Climate Centre was carved from Applications and Central Services. Then, in 1979, when the Head of the new Climate Centre left the Service, Morley took responsibility for that unit. Now, in 2001, after cutbacks and consolidation, both Central Services and the Canadian Climate Centre have disappeared from the scene.

In 1982, Morley was 64 years old and decided to retire. Jim Bruce was by then Head of AES and offered to have his retirement delayed. Nevertheless, he retired on 31 January 1983. Retired is probably not the right word since, the next day, he moved downstairs to a small office in the library and began researching the history of the Service. This had been his intent for some time.

In February 1983, Morley signed a legal agreement with the Service giving him access, space and typing assistance for the history work. At present, he reports to the Head of the Service whenever necessary.

Morley has published a considerable number of articles and reports on different aspects of climate. He is the co-author of Climate Canada, a textbook widely used in high schools and universities. He has been or is a member of numerous national committees and professional societies. He has an impressive list of awards bestowed on him and is a well-known figure in the international arena. He deserves the title of Mr Climate by which he is widely known.

All those who have had the opportunity of knowing Morley Thomas, agree that he is kind, considerate, friendly, cooperative and extremely knowledgeable.

This interview took place in Strathroy, Ontario, in July 2001.

H.T. — When did you obtain your M.A.? Was it in general meteorology or inclined more to climatology?

M.K.T. — When the University of Toronto and the Meteorological Division announced the resumption of the masters programme in physics (meteorology) in 1948, I decided to seek entry to the course. I applied and was accepted on the understanding that I could return to climatology if I so wished after completing the course.

The one-year course was intensive and highly theoretical. The meteorological courses were given by Meteorological Service staff members while university professors contributed courses in differential equations, statistics, and climatology. I enjoyed synoptic meteorology with its map analysis and forecasting. When I graduated in June 1949, I was happy to return to climatological work; by that time, punched-card methods were being introduced to meet the expanding needs of government, business and industry. I was intrigued enough with improving my qualifications to completing additional courses in geography and climatology at Toronto and McGill Universities during the next two years.

About the time of my M.A. graduation in 1949 Dr Robert.F. Legget, Director of the new Division of Building Research of the National Research Council in Ottawa, asked me to come for an interview regarding a climatologist position he was establishing. The work would entail developing climate parameters for a new National Building Code and providing advice to the construction industry on climate matters. Following the interview I was immediately offered the position.

The Meteorological Service had just introduced a secondment policy under which meteorologists could be seconded or loaned to other government departments to work in applied meteorology and climatology. It was agreed that a seconded position would be set up for building research and I won the position. Since the climate archives were in Toronto it was decided that I would remain there and travel to Ottawa every fourth week to confer with the building research scientists.

I developed methods for calculating design values for Canadian buildings and I produced tables and maps of snow and wind loads, design temperatures for building heating and cooling, etc. These were published as part of the new National Building Code and were subsequently adopted by municipalities and used by the construction industry across the country. As by-products of the work I made additional national climate maps and, with Dr Legget’s enthusiastic support, published the joint NRC/Meteorological Service Climatological Atlas of Canada (1953).

H.T. —  In 1953, you rejoined the Climatology Division. Could you please describe some of the work you did there?

M.K.T. — The requirements for climate data information in Canada had begun to increase significantly in the 1950s, the country was prospering and government resources were available. We had just begun to experiment with punched- card methods of handling data in the 1950s and a decade later we had over 100 people in this area of climatology. Our days of attempting to deal with all aspects of applied climatology ourselves were shortening since, by 1960, we had obtained sufficient resources to recruit staff for new sections dealing with hydrometeorology, applications, and climate research.

Besides my regular work, I continued to be involved in teaching. In 1950, I began the lecture course which I continued giving for two decades. David Phillips took over as lecturer in climatology in 1972 but a few years later the method of training meteorologists was changed and the course dropped.

I found many opportunities in the 1950s and 1960s to investigate different aspects of the Canadian climate such as unusual periods of stormy weather, dry spells, warm periods in the Arctic, extreme cold, etc. Interest in climate change was developing and I was asked to address several professional societies on the subject. Also, I continued collecting all the books, papers and articles I could find on the Canadian climate, which allowed David Phillips and me to publish several issues of A Bibliography of Canadian Climate.

H.T. — When did you become Director, Meteorological Applications Branch and later on Director-General of the Central Services Directorate?

M.K.T. — I became Director of the Branch in 1971, when a major reorganization of the Service took place. We moved to the new Department of the Environment and changed our name to the Atmospheric Environment Service. The move to Environment Canada was something of a coming-of-age for the Service, since we had been a very small part of the Department of Transport but now we constituted about one-quarter of the new department. Clarence Boughner became Director-General of a new Central Services Directorate and I succeeded him as head of climatology. We were told, however, that we had to get rid of such an old-fashioned name and we adopted the name “Meteorological Applications Branch”. I became responsible for units dealing with the quality-control and archiving of surface and upper-air data, data services and publications, hydrometeorology, climate applications and data processing.

As Director General of Central Services, I was also responsible for those Branches at headquarters which provided services to government and the private sector and to our own Service. It was a heterogeneous mix and included meteorological applications, training, ice reconnaissance and forecasting. Fortunately the branches had excellent directors. Most meteorological training of Service employees was still done in-house by the Training Branch in those days, while some assistance was provided to the universities where meteorological programmes had started. The Ice Branch work was largely supported by the Canadian Coast Guard Service. The Ice Forecast Central was in Ottawa and the aerial ice reconnaissance programme flew in the Arctic in summer and along the Atlantic coast in winter. The Meteorological Applications Branch was the one I just described when speaking of my previous duties. The data-processing unit served the other units, as well as providing a data service to outside users. We were just getting into computers but most work was still done on unit record equipment in the early 1970s. Within a year or two, the Instrument Branch with its responsibilities for design and acquisition of the instruments used throughout the Service was added to Central Services

H.T  —   From 1979 to 1983 you were Director-General of the Canadian Climate Centre. Did this new position have different responsibilities or was it a continuation of your previous duties?

M.K.T. — In a sense it was both. Becoming responsible again for climate work in the Meteorological Service was like going home for me. The previous year, the Service Management Committee had determined that since climate and climatology had become so important, a separate unit, the Canadian Climate Centre, should be set up. I was totally in favour of this move, although I was quite aware that most of the Meteorological Applications Branch would be carved from Central Services and that I would miss direct contact with the climate work. I was given the opportunity to head the new unit but declined since I had accepted wider responsibilities with the Central Services Directorate and did not wish to back away. However, when the Climate Centre position became available in 1979, I accepted an invitation to move to it on the understanding that I would retire within five years or so. For about six months I was responsible for both Central Services and the Climate Centre but then I became free to concentrate on climate again. The Climate Centre now included an active climate modelling section and an enlarged periodicals programme, so I was involved with more than I had been a decade earlier.

H.T. — Let us talk about your involvement in the national committees.

M.K.T. — When I was in the building research position in 1951, Dr Legget had me appointed to the climate committee of the National Research Council’s Associate Committee on the National Building Code and I served on it periodically until the mid-1960s. During the 1960s I was also appointed for two-year terms to the NRC Associate Committee on Soil and Snow Mechanics and its various subcommittees. From time to time I was responsible for considerable “homework”, i.e. the preparation of reports for study by other committee members.

A delightful committee I served on for four years in the 1960s was one constituted to award grants to university professors for geographical research. At that time there was a Geographical Branch in the federal Government and the Branch funded the grants.


Morley Thomas with Academician M. Budyko









Morley Thomas in Stockholm for the fourth session of CCl in 1965 with  Academician M. Budyko of the USSR

Also in the 1960s I was on Canada Agriculture’s committee on agroclimatic classification, in which we dealt with the possibility of digitizing climate maps, an early attempt to achieve a technology that is now commonplace. As I was responsible for training in the Meteorological Service,  I was a member of Transport Canada’s Training Council in the late 1970s. From 1979 until retirement, I was a member of the Climate Planning Board. Late in my career, as I became more involved with “in house” Service management, my outside committee work decreased but I do remember participating in extensive committee meetings as Environment Canada first attempted to establish national guidelines for environmental impact assessment procedures.

H.T. — When was your first contact with WMO?

M.K.T. — I must confess that I date back to the International Meteorological Organization! In August 1947, the Meteorological Service hosted meetings of all the technical commissions in Toronto and as a very junior staff member I was permitted to register as an observer. I must say that Canadian meteorologists have been most fortunate that participation in IMO/ WMO activities has always been considered important to those administering the Meteorological Service.

My first active contact with the Commission for Climatology (CCl) came early in 1957 when I accompanied Clarence Boughner to the second session of the commission in Washington. He became president of CCl in 1960 and over the next eight years I had almost daily discussions with him on WMO matters. I attended the succeeding sessions at Stockholm and Bad Homburg, was active on the Climatic Atlas and Guide committees between sessions and, in 1971 and 1975, was a member of the Canadian delegation to Congress.

In April 1978, I was the Canadian principal delegate at CCl-VIII in Geneva and expected this would be my final CCl Session since climatological work had just been removed from my Central Services directorate. But a few days after the beginning of the session, delegates approached me from almost every WMO Region to ask me to president of the Commission. I agreed and was elected unanimously. The World Climate Conference took place and then Congress launched the World Climate Programme, which brought the discipline of climatology to the fore as nothing had ever done before.

My part in developing the World Climate Programme was minor. As CCl president, I was asked to chair several ad hoc planning sessions in Geneva and to speak about the Programme at other commission and regional meetings at such places as Sofia, Rome, Mexico City, and Guangzhou (China). But I consider my role to have been very small in what has become a major WMO Programme.

H.T. — You have a high reputation and enjoy the title of “one of the best climatologists”, Could you mention some of your major achievements as a climatologist?

M.K.T. — This is an extremely flattering title since I hardly associate myself with the “best climatologists”. When I began working in climatology in 1945, office policy called for the simple provision of archived climate data to engineers and other professionals who asked for them. We were instructed not to assist in adapting the data for their use by creating such “derivatives” as design values or indexes. The policy was changed in the 1950s and I have great satisfaction in having participated in this development of applied climatology.

When I first trained as a meteorologist, I was taught little about climatology and was unaware that the Meteorological Service even had a Climatological Section.


Three presidents of WMO technical commissions







Three presidents of WMO technical commissions during the thirty-third session of the Executive Council at WMO Headquarters in 1978 : R. Clark (CHy, Canada), Morley Thomas and A. Villevieille (CAS, France)

One of the reasons I continued to give a course in climatology to new meteorologists for 20 years was to help send them into operational meteorology with some knowledge and understanding of climatology.

Over the decade or so before retirement, I was one of those who actively promoted more attention to climate change. My point was that, as a government service, we should be calling the attention of other departments and private sector interests to the possibility of global warming, regardless of whether or not climate change was for real. And if the threat of change turned out to be imaginary, then a better knowledge of climate would be very useful to government and commerce. It seemed that we were not getting anywhere but, as you know, climate change is now an important political subject in most countries

H.T. — You served as an expert in Nigeria. When was that and what did you do?

M.K.T. — In 1961, the Nigerian Government asked the Canadian Government to assist their Meteorological Service in modernizing their methods of processing climate data. The Canadian Government was willing to purchase and give punched-card equipment to Nigeria if there was a real need and if the Nigerians could use modern methods of data processing. Accordingly, the same year, I was chosen to go to that country, where I visited several meteorological offices, discussed the work with meteorologists and technicians and observed their methods of data handling. Canada purchased and sent the necessary equipment, and a colleague went to Nigeria to install the machines. Over the next couple of years, several Nigerians came to our Climatological Section in Toronto for training. A few years later, however, because of the civil war in Nigeria, we lost track of this assistance programme. On a personal note I must confess that during the time I was in Nigeria I discovered the delightful habit of drinking tea early in the morning and the habit has stuck.

A somewhat younger Morley Thomas









A somewhat younger Morley Thomas

H.T. — I recall that 1971 was a crucial year within the Service, while, during the WMO Congress, CCl was almost written off. Would you like to expand on that?

M.K.T. — It is hard to realize today that in the 1960s there was the belief that climatology was a decadent and old-fashioned subject—despite the increasing demand for climate data and information. In Canada, management consultants in our department told us that we would never get our proper share of resources until we dropped the word “climatology” and adopted a title that was more modern. I am ashamed to admit that we accepted this advice and with the reorganization in the new Department of the Environment, we named what had been the Climatological Section the Meteorological Applications Branch.

Much the same thing happened in WMO. At Sixth Congress in 1971, the delegates declared there was a need to rationalize the system of technical commissions into basic and applications activities. Climatology was an integral part of meteorology so a commission by that name could not be considered “basic”. There were applications commissions for agricultural, aeronautical and marine meteorology and for hydrology. The Commission for Climatology presented a problem; some delegates wanted to eliminate it and distribute its terms of reference amongst the other commissions. Some European countries objected and, fortunately, Dr Helmut Landsberg, president of CCl, led a lobbying campaign to retain the Commission. He and I were the only self-avowed climatologists at that Congress and we were successful in retaining the Commission but we lost the title. Congress renamed it the Commission for the Special Applications of Meteorology and Climatology (CoSAMC). The word “Climatology” was added to the title only because of the insistence of Dr Landsberg. It is interesting to note that, four years later, the word climatology was becoming important again and Congress changed the title to Commission for Climatology and Applications of Meteorology (CCAM). Later, in 1983, the original title Commission for Climatology (CCl) was redeemed. For simplicity, I have used the CCl nomenclature when speaking of events in the 1971 to 1983 period.

H.T. — After your retirement in 1983 you started researching the history of the Service. How has it gone so far?

M.K.T. — I actually begun researching and writing about the subject as a hobby about 30 years ago. At that time there were space problems and it was suggested that “all that old stuff” be thrown out. The old stuff was the correspondence of the Toronto observatory and the Meteorological Service from 1839 to about 1928. I protested and was given a year or so to arrange its disposal. I consulted with National Archives and found they were interested in at least some of the material. History students came in the summer of 1971 to examine and catalogue the documents and to separate out those documents that would be useful to anyone researching the history of the Service. The Archives accepted the idea that we could temporarily keep this material and took the remainder. However, I did find time in the next few years to research and write “brief histories” of the Service for publication by our meteorological society and for inclusion in the Meteorological Service’s Annual Report in our centennial year, 1971. But it was 1983 before I could turn my full attention to history. I published several short pieces over the next few years and it was 1991 before my first volume—The Beginnings of Canadian Meteorology—appeared. This book covered the period from 1839 to 1880 and because I was interested in researching aviation meteorology I jumped ahead in time and researched and wrote Forecasts for Flying covering the 1918-1939 period in 1996. Then I decided to continue with the story in wartime, which led to Metmen in Wartime: Meteorology in Canada 1939-1945 published earlier this year. I am very happy to have got this far and I do not plan to fill in the 1880 to 1918 gap nor do I plan to write anything major on the last 30 years.

H.T. — A man with your knowledge and experienced must have many unforgettable memories in his professional life. Can you recount some of them?

M.K.T. — The first that come to mind are scarcely professional but they were life-threatening as they concern flying in wartime. The first time I got airsick I crawled to the back of the aircraft, opened the door at 2 000 ft and lived to wonder at my foolishness. The second was with a pilot who flew so low over Lake Ontario that a propeller struck the water and caused the aircraft to vibrate markedly when it came in to land. He braked hard enough to stand the machine on its nose and destroy the evidence of his foolhardiness. Miraculously neither of us was injured.

My first experience with punched cards also seemed miraculous at the time. I obtained hourly observations from several Canadian stations on punched cards in 1951 when we were beginning to experiment with them for routine processing and ran them through a sorter where the cards were not only sorted but tallied in counters. What a labour saver! Many years later, in 1978, at Congress in Geneva, when I was elected president of CCl was unforgettable, since I had thought that Eighth Congress would be my last WMO meeting. Had I wanted to become president I would have thought it politically impossible since three of the eight WMO technical commissions were already presided over by Canadians.


Morley and Clara Thomas









Morley and Clara Thomas at the Massey Medal presentation, Rideau Hall, Ottawa, in 1985

Another unforgettable occasion was in 1985 when I went to Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor-General in Ottawa, to be awarded the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's Massey Medal and the reception in my honour which followed.

H.T. — Would you like to say something about your family?

M.K.T. — Yes, I certainly would. My family has been completely supportive in everything. I met Clara McCandless at a freshman party when we started college and we were engaged by the time we graduated. We were married in 1942 when I was stationed with the RCAF in Manitoba. When I was posted back to Ontario she returned to university to work and obtain her first graduate degree. Our first son, Stephen Morley, was born in 1945 when we were stationed at Kingston, Ontario. After the war Clara travelled on weekends to lecture for the university and our second son, John David, was born in 1951. After John started school Clara returned to graduate school, obtained her Ph.D. in English in 1962, and became one of the first faculty members at the new York University in Toronto. Over the following twenty-five years she published several books and became an internationally recognized authority on Canadian literature. Also, for the 15 or so years before her retirement in 1984 she was often appointed to national committees and boards and on occasion we would meet in rail stations and airports. I must add that I have enjoyed travelling with her as a spouse when she went to speak at meetings in Italy, Belgium, France and Great Britain.

Our sons: Steve has a  degrees in geography and John’s is in history. They live in Toronto at present. Steve is married with a son and has his own charitable fund- raising firm that he founded 20 years ago. John is a college professor of history and both sons coach high-school sports teams: Steve basketball and John football.

H.T. — Is there anything you would like to have done professionally which you have not done?

M.K.T. — This is a difficult question because I have had the opportunity to do so many things. Men of my age group in Canada who survived World War II matured in a country with an economy that steadily expanded for three decades. During that time the Government felt prosperous enough to support the expansion of weather and climate services and research, amongst other things, of course. As a colleague told me 20 years ago: “We aren't so smart, we just happen to be in the right place at the right time”. I am unhappy that the generation of meteorologists now in the prime of life and career do not appear to have nearly as many opportunities as we had. Someone has said “We had blue sky above us”, and we did, compared to the “heavy overcast” situation which many feel they are working under today. So I really cannot say there are things I was unable to do except that I wish that my generation of meteorologists could have left a better “climate” for career advancement by the following generation of meteorologists and climatologists.

H.T. — On that typically altruistic note, I would like to thank you for according this interview for the WMO Bulletin. I applaud your achievements and even more so the fact that you have remained so delightfully modest and unassuming and so considerate of others.


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