TITLE: CS Prof From Iowa Was a 'Heroine of Computing' -- and a Nun AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 25, 2014 12:03 PM DESC: ----- BODY: While cleaning up the house recently for a family visit, I came across a stack of newspaper articles I'd saved from last fall. Among them was an article about a September 7, 2013, exhibition at The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, England. The exhibition was titled "Celebrating the Heroines of Computing". That alone would have made the article worth clipping, but it had a closer connection to me: it featured a CS professor from the state of Iowa, who was also a Catholic nun.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, with Paul Laube, MD, undated
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was a professed member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an order of nuns based in Dubuque, Iowa. If you have had the privilege of working or studying with nuns, you know that they are often amazing people. Sister Mary Kenneth certainly was. She was also a trailblazer who studied computer science before it was a thing and helped to create a CS department:
As the first person to receive a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she was a strong advocate for women entering the field of computer science. For nearly 20 years she served as chair of the newly-created computer science department at Clarke University and was among the first to recognize the future importance of computers in the sciences, libraries and business. Under her leadership at Clarke, a master's degree program in computer applications in education was included.
Claims that some individual was the "first person to receive a Ph.D. in computer science" have been relatively common over the years. The Department of Computer Science at Wisconsin has a page listing Ph.D.'s conferred, 1965-1970, which list Sister Mary Kenneth first, for a dissertation titled "Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns". But that wasn't her only first; this ACM blog piece by Ralph London asserts that Keller is the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in CS anywhere in the US, and one of the first two US CS Ph.D.s overall. This bit of history is only a small part of Keller's life in academia and computing. She earned a master's degree in math at DePaul University in the early 1950s. In 1958, she worked at the Dartmouth University Computer Center as part of an NSF workshop, during which time she participated in the development of the BASIC programming language. She wrote four books on computing and served as consultant for a group of business and government organizations that included the city of Dubuque and the state of Illinois. Sister Mary Kenneth spent her career on the faculty of Clarke University, apparently chairing the Department of Computer Science until her retirement. The university's computer center is named the Keller Computer Center and Information Service in her honor, as is a scholarship for students of computing. I'd been in Iowa twenty years before I first heard this story of an Iowan's role in the history of computing. Her story also adds to the history of women in computing and, for me, creates a whole new area in the history of computing: women religious. A pretty good find for cleaning up the house.
The passage quoted above come from an article by Jody Iler, "BVM to be Featured as One of the 'Heroines of Computing'", which ran some time last fall in The Witness, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. I found substantially the same text on a news archive page on the web site of the Sisters of Charity, BVM. There is, of course, a Wikipedia page for Sister Mary Kenneth that reports many of the same details of her life. The photo above, which appears both in Iler's article and on the web site, shows Sister Mary Kenneth with Dr. Paul Laube, a flight surgeon from Dubuque who consulted with her on some computing matter. (Laube's obituary indicates he lived an interesting life as well.) In the article, the photo is credited to Clarke University. -----