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Cybersecurity is one of the most in-demand career fields today, with nearly 465,000 open jobs in the industry as of October 2021. These positions —cybersecurity analyst, penetration and vulnerability tester, etc.— have their roots in the work of Agnes Meyer Driscoll, a Navy codebreaker who arguably changed the course of the Pacific theater in World War II.

Born July 24, 1889, in Genesco, Illinois, Driscoll’s education and career took an unconventional path from the start. Following her 1911 graduation from Ohio State University, where she majored in math, music, physics, and foreign languages, Driscoll became chair of the math department at an Amarillo, Texas, high school.

She might have stayed there had the United States not entered World War I. Facing a shortage of enlistees, the Secretary of the Navy allowed women to enlist, and Driscoll became a Chief Yeoman (F). The “F” stood for female.

Agnes Meyer Driscoll code development for the US Navy

Driscoll moved to Washington, D.C., where she was assigned to analyze telegrams and letters for signs of espionage. Her aptitude led her to the other side: code development. She began making Navy codes, which was excellent training for breaking codes.

At the war’s end, Driscoll was discharged, but quickly hired back as a civilian, hacking what were known as “nut jobs”—supposedly unbreakable cipher machines. They were no match for Driscoll.

Neither were Japanese naval codes, which Driscoll spent the 1930s studying, giving the U.S. valuable intelligence necessary in the Pacific theater during World War II. The Japanese fleet code relied on “superencipherment,” using a code plus a cipher.

Driscoll came to be known as “Madame X” and “Miss Aggie”—and was known for swearing like a sailor. As Madame X liked to say, “any man-made code could be broken by a woman.” Driscoll is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Photo: Lenscap Photography / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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