Women Who Changed the World of Tech Part 4/5
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913/4–1985) is the focus of today’s blog. This nun, activist, teacher and brilliant scholar was a revolutionary figure who paved the road for the information economy and blazed a trail for women in computer science.
Sister Kenneth Keller was born in Cleveland, Ohio, supposedly on December 17th, 1913, though the date of birth is debated. Very little is known of her early life. She entered the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuqye, Iowa, in 1932 and took her vows in 1940.
The parts that history is able to tell us, however, are extraordinary.
She completed a B.S. in math and an M.S in math and physics from DePaul University in 1943 and 1953 respectively. In 1958 she started at the National Science Foundation at Dartmouth College. The latter having just relaxed their rules barring women’s access to their computer centre. Sister Keller ended up contributing to the development of the computer language BASIC. The language was transformational for her field as it opened up software development to a more general public than scientists and mathematicians. Versions of BASIC were released on the first personal computers in the 1970s and 1980s which allowed anyone from business owners to hobbyists to develop software.
Throughout her graduate studies Keller attended other prestigious institutions including the University of Michigan and Purdue. At the University of Wisconsin,
Sister Keller’s dissertation titled “Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns” in 1965, made her the very first woman with a Ph.D. in Computer Science.
She later founded the computer science department at Clarke College in Iowa, a Catholic College for women founded by the Sister of Charity. She chaired the department for 20 years and was an advocate for women in Computer Science. She was noted for her support of working mothers and even encouraged mothers to bring their babies to class with them.
Keller was one of the first to predict the role computers would have in the future. She advocated for their use in education even establishing a master’s degree program for computer applications in education at Clarke. She foresaw their use to libraries saying “Its function in information retrieval will make it the hub for tomorrow’s libraries”.
She also predicted the information age: “We’re having an information explosion, among others and it’s certainly obvious that information is of no use unless it’s available.”
Clarke University has established the Mary Kenneth Keller Computer Science Scholarship and the Keller Computer Centre in her honour.
Keller died on January 10th, 1985 at the age of 71. Her contributions to the world of computer science are still honoured today.