Sister Mary Kenneth Keller: The First Woman (and Nun!) to Earn a CS PhD
As the first woman to earn a PhD in Computer Science, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller paved the way for thousands of women to pursue CS degrees! Rising to prominence in the mid-1900s, Sister Keller was ahead of her time – she believed in the power and importance of women in STEM, and she made some impressive predictions about AI and the internet. Her passion for math, physics, and eventually computing led her to make important contributions, like helping to develop the programming language BASIC.
Sister Keller began her religious journey long before her academic one; born in Ohio in 1914, she entered the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1932. After professing her vows eight years later, she began studying at DePaul University, earning a B.S in Mathematics and an M.S. in Mathematics and Physics. Her identity as a nun didn’t impact her success as a phenomenal computer scientist. She balanced both roles beautifully, and she serves as an incredible testament to the power of hard work, goal-setting, and pure intelligence.
Things weren’t easy for her as a woman in STEM at the time, but Sister Keller was able to successfully navigate a society that wasn’t necessarily welcoming. During her graduate studies, Dartmouth College made an exception to their strict “men only” rule and allowed her to pursue her graduate studies there. She made it worth their while; while attending, she was instrumental in developing BASIC, a programming language that made learning to program accessible to those other than mathematicians and scientists.
During her time as a graduate student, she also studied at the University of Wisconsin, Purdue, and the University of Michigan. Her dissertation was titled “Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns,” and in 1965 she earned her PhD!
Her unique passion for computing helped Sister Keller make some incredibly accurate predictive statements. She predicted the importance of AI when she 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…this type of teaching will probably be increasingly important.”
Sister Keller didn’t keep her talent and knowledge to herself; in addition to being an incredible computer scientist, she was also a fantastic educator! After earning her PhD, she founded the computer science department at Clarke College in Iowa, which she went on to direct for 20 years. Even before women’s involvement in CS was recognized as important and worthwhile, Sister Keller was educating women in computer science. She held classes for adult students, some of whom were working mothers who brought their children to class.
Even before the existence of the internet, Sister Keller recognized computers’ potential to make information accessible to all. She said, “We’re having an information explosion, among others, and it’s certainly obvious that information is of no use unless it’s available.”
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller proved that success in STEM is possible for anyone, regardless of belief, identity, or gender. She is an example of going above and beyond; not only was she the first woman to earn a PhD in CS, she worked hard to develop and share her knowledge. Following Sister Keller’s example, let’s encourage every girl to follow her dreams into whichever field they lead her!
This article is part of a series on women in STEM – check our blog soon for the next one!