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Mary Kenneth Keller

By Anjali Dubey

Born in Cleveland,Ohio on December 17,1913 to John Adam Keller and Catherine Josephine, Mary Kenneth Keller was an American Roman Catholic Sister, educator and pioneer in computer science. After entering the Sisters of the Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1932 she completed both her bachelors and masters in mathematics and physics from DePaul University in Chicago. She also earned her PhD from the University of Wisconsin and was actually the nation’s first woman ever to earn a PhD in Computer Science.

She was a trailblazer in higher education and worked tirelessly to expand computer science research. At Dartmouth College, she started the National Science Foundation Workshop in the Computer Science department which at the time was an all-male school. She also teamed up with two other scientists to develop the BASIC programming language. BASIC is a way of translating the zeroes and ones of computer code into something more intuitive and straightforward. It is a general-purpose, high level programming language which helped broaden computer programming into non-math and science fields, subsequently giving many people their first experience with programming. Sister Mary later set up the computing department at Clarke College in Iowa, which she then led for twenty years, becoming passionate about the potential for computers to increase access to information and to promote education.

She was among the first to recognize the future importance of computers, noting in 1964 that students in such fields as education, psychology, and the sciences were already using computers in their work. She also foresaw the importance of computers in libraries. Kenneth was a strong advocate for the involvement of women in the field of computer science, especially given the growing demand for computer experts and information specialists. There were, and are, jobs to be had and she saw no reason that women could not fulfill these needs. Sister Kenneth was a strong visionary and a powerful women leader, who, during the course of her education and career as a computer scientist, went on to defy stereotypes and break barriers,thus becoming an inspiration for all women and girls in tech.

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