The First Woman to Earn a PhD in Computer Science Was a Nun

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, born in Ohio in 1914, entered the Sisters of Charity in 1932 and professed her vows in 1940. She went on to study at DePaul University, where she received a B.S. in Mathematics and an M.S. in Mathematics and Physics. Before this, very little is known of her life; even her birth year is disputed.

In the 1960s, Sister Keller studied at the University of Wisconsin. She also studied at Purdue, the University of Michigan, and Dartmouth College. Dartmouth relaxed the rule barring women from its computer center, which allowed Keller to help develop the computer language BASIC. (Before BASIC, only mathematicians and scientists could write custom software; BASIC allowed anyone who could learn the language to do so, making computer use accessible to a much larger swath of the population.)

Keller’s dissertation, written in CDC FORTRAN 63, was titled "Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns." In 1965, she became the first American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science.

Afterward, Sister Keller founded the computer science department at Clarke College in Iowa, which she directed for 20 years. She was passionate about providing access and information to everyone, not just computer scientists. She also envisioned a world in which computers made people smarter and learned to think on their own. Keller said, “For the first time, we can now mechanically simulate the cognitive process. We can make studies in artificial intelligence. Beyond that, this mechanism [the computer] can be used to assist humans in learning. As we are going to have more mature students in greater numbers as time goes on, this type of teaching will probably be increasingly important.”

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October 14, 2013 - 12:15pm
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