This week, we are going to learn about the life of Mary Kenneth Keller. Mary Kenneth Keller was one of the first women to break into the computer science field, and has made a lasting impact on society.
Before Mary Kenneth Keller broke into the technology field, she became a Roman Catholic nun at the age of 18! She was in the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa (Edrington).
After entering the sisterhood, Keller began her career in academia. She earned her B.S. and M.S. in mathematics and physics from DePaul University. In the 1950s, she became interested in computing. In 1958 at the all-male Dartmouth College, Keller helped create the programming language Beginner’s All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC). BASIC was designed to be used by the everyday professional, not just mathematicians. Now, those in business, healthcare, and other non-technical trades could harness the power of computing (Ballor).
In 1965, Keller became one of the first women to receive a PhD in computer science. She went on to start the computer science department at Clark College in Iowa, developing a whole masters program. Today, the Keller Computer Center at Clark College serves to honor her accomplishments while working at this institution (“Sister Mary Kenneth Keller”).
Like many other cool tech ladies, Keller saw the great power computing could bear on the future. She said computing’s “ function in information retrieval will make it the hub of tomorrow’s libraries ” (Edrington) and that “We’re having an information explosion, among others, and it’s certainly obvious that information is of no use unless it’s available” (“Mary Kenneth Keller”). Keller especially saw computing’s importance in not just making information widely available, but also impacting the education process. She wrote “”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” (“The First Woman to Earn a Doctorate”). She established the Association of Small Computer Users in Education (ASCUE) to facilitate the use of technology in education. Keller essentially predicted machine learning, as well as the use of software in education (“The First Woman to Earn a Doctorate”)!
Keller wasn’t solely focused on developing her own technical knowledge, however. She wanted as many women to embrace computing as possible. She even allowed female students to bring their children to class if necessary (“Sister Mary Kenneth Keller”)!
In 1985, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller passed away, however, her legacy as a Catholic nun/computing mastermind will always be felt.
Ballor, Amy. “Sister Mary Kenneth Keller.” Acton Institute, acton.org/religion-liberty/volume-28-number-3/sister-mary-kenneth-keller.
Edrington, Kate. “Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, BVM: A Pioneer in Computer Science.” Envisioning the Future of Catholic Religious Archives, catholicarchives.bc.edu/2018/05/sister-mary-kenneth-keller-bvm-a-pioneer-in-computer-science/.
“Mary Kenneth Keller.” The Ada Project, www.women.cs.cmu.edu/ada/Resources/Women/.
“Sister Mary Kenneth Keller.” Introductions Necessary, introductionsnecessary.com/2016/06/07/sister-mary-kenneth-keller/.
“The First Woman to Earn a Doctorate in Computer Science Was a Nun.” National Catholic Register, www.ncregister.com/blog/astagnaro/the-first-woman-to-earn-a-doctorate-in-computer-science-was-a-nun.