Mary Kenneth Keller

Women in STEM
Women in STEM
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

Image Courtesy of Clarke University

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 written in CDC FORTRAN 63.

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 scientists 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


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See Also:

Clarke University

Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Association Supporting Computer Users in Education