Sister Mary Kenneth Keller

Birth: 1913 Death: January 10, 1985 Specialty: Computer Science Major Contributions: First woman to earn doctorate in computer science in U.S. Founded computer science department at Clarke College Assisted in development of programming language BASIC

Birth: 1913
Death: January 10, 1985
Specialty: Computer Science
Major Contributions:
First woman to earn doctorate in computer science in U.S.
Founded computer science department at Clarke College
Assisted in development of programming language BASIC

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As one of the first recipients of a doctorate in computer science in the United States, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller most definitely forged her own path in life.

Around the age of eighteen she entered the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin community taking vows of membership into the group in 1940. Three years later she earned a BS in mathematics from DePaul University following that up with a MS in mathematics and physics in 1953.  Starting in 1958  at the National Science Foundation workshop in computer science center at the male-only  Dartmouth College she helped with the development of the BASIC computer programming language.   BASIC was unique in that it allowed everyday users, not just mathematicians, to be able to program computers. Earning her doctorate in computer science from the University of Wisconsin in 1965, her dissertation focused on constructing algorithms that performed analytic differentiation on algebraic expressions.

After receiving her Ph.D. she founded the computer science department at Clarke College in Iowa and served as its director for twenty years, during which time she developed a master’s degree program for computer applications in education.  Clarke University established both the Keller Computer Center and the Mary Kenneth Keller Computer Science Scholarship in her honor.

An advocate for women in computing she was the author of four books and helped to establish the Association of Small Computer Users in Education, a group that is still active today. ASCUE’s  mission is to provide opportunities for resource-sharing, networking, and collaboration within an environment that fosters creativity and innovation in the use of technology within higher education which fits well within Sister Keller’s vision for computers in the future.

Computers as part of the educational system was one of her passions as she saw that they could provide information and access to every learner not just computer scientist and they would be a tool used to help people become better thinkers and learners.  She even saw the potential for the computer beyond education stating, “For the first time, we can now mechanically simulate the cognitive process. We can make studies in artificial intelligence.”

Written by Angela Goad

Sources:

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

Additional Information for “Who Earned First Computer Science PhD?”

ZME Science: She was the first woman to get PhD in Computer Science – and she was a nun

Wikipedia: Mary Kenneth Keller

3G Woman in Technology – Sister Mary Kenneth Keller

See Also:

Clarke University

Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Association Supporting Computer Users in Education