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Here’s a bit of trivia to wow your friends: The first woman (and the second person in the United States) to earn a PhD in computer science was a Roman Catholic nun.

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller earned her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin on June 7, 1965—and was aced out of being the first person to earn the degree in the U.S. by a few hours. (That milestone belongs to Irving C. Tang, who completed his studies at Washington University in St. Louis.) Keller’s dissertation was titled “Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns.”

Keller’s path to a PhD

Born in Ohio in 1913, Keller joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1932 and professed her vows—but her studies in math and science continued. She earned a bachelor’s degree in math and a master’s degree in math and physics at DePaul University and then went on to study computer science at Purdue, Michigan and Dartmouth. Dartmouth had to make an exception to allow Keller to work in its previously male-only computer lab, where she assisted John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz as they developed the programming language BASIC.

Keller’s prescient thoughts on the use of computers in higher education as well as flexibility for female students have lasting impact today. She advocated for mothers to bring their babies to class, and she founded the Association of Small Computer Users in Education (ASCUE).

Following her time at Wisconsin, Keller founded the computer science program at Clarke University, a university founded by her religious order in Dubuque, Iowa, and where the Keller Computer Center is now located. She passed away in 1985.

Photo: metamorworks / 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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