Sister Mary Kenneth Keller: The First Woman (and Nun!) to Earn a CS PhD
What is Mary Kenneth Keller Known for?
As the first of the women in tech to earn a PhD in Computer Science, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller paved the way for thousands of women in technology 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 academia and STEM and made some impressive predictions about AI and the internet. Her passion for math, physics, and eventually computing led her to make significant 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 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 education at the time, but Sister Keller was able to successfully navigate a society that wasn’t necessarily welcoming to women in computing. 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.”
What are Some Fun Facts about Mary Kennet Keller?
- Early Computer Scientist: Mary Kenneth Keller was one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in computer science. She received her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965.
- Co-developed BASIC: Keller collaborated with John G. Kemeny to develop the BASIC programming language, which stands for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. BASIC played a significant role in making computer programming accessible to a broader audience.
- First Female Computer Science Ph.D.: As mentioned earlier, Keller earned her Ph.D. in computer science in 1965, becoming the first woman to do so in the United States.
- Education Advocate: Throughout her career, Mary Kenneth Keller was a strong advocate for increased opportunities for women in computer science and technology. She actively encouraged more women to pursue careers in computing.
- Religious Background: Keller was a Roman Catholic nun belonging to the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her faith was an integral part of her life, and she found a way to combine her religious calling with her passion for technology and education.
- First Computer Center at a Catholic College: Keller was instrumental in establishing the first computer center at Clarke College (now known as Clarke University) in Dubuque, Iowa. This center helped students, including many women, gain access to computer science education.
- Theology and Technology: In addition to her contributions to computer science, Keller was interested in exploring the intersection of theology and technology. She saw the potential for technology to benefit society and contribute to human development.
- Legacy: Mary Kenneth Keller’s legacy extends beyond her lifetime. Her work in computing, dedication to education, and efforts to promote diversity in STEM fields have inspired many aspiring computer scientists and educators.
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!