Mary Kenneth Keller Izertis
Mónica Méndez Information Security Consultant

A brief story from Mary Kenneth Keller to ChatGPT

“For the first time, we can simulate the cognitive process mechanically. We can conduct studies on artificial intelligence. Beyond this, this mechanism (PC) can serve to help humans learn. With time, we will have more mature students, so this type of teaching is likely to gain importance". 

This statement might not surprise you too much nowadays, but if we contextualize it with a name, last name and publication year, I'm sure things would change. Let us tell you her story. 

Back in 1958, Dartmouth College decided to skip its 'men-only' rule that had been in place for 188 years to allow a woman to join as a researcher at its Computing Centre. That woman was Sister Mary Kenneth Keller. 

Mary Kenneth Keller was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in a Catholic family of Irish origin. At the age of majority, she joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, becoming a nun in 1940. She studied at DePaul University in Chicago, where she earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics, receiving a bachelor of science degree and completing a master of science in mathematics and physics at the same university (1945). 

In 1958, along with John George Kemeny and Thomas Eugene Kurtz, she devised a computer language that facilitated computer programming and made computers accessible to anyone. It was the birth of BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). 

On June 7, 1965, she made history again by becoming the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science in the United States. Mary Kenneth, a nun with the Sisters of Charity, became one of the mothers of technology. 

Mary Kenneth Keller was, is, and will continue to be a great inspiration to all women in STEM

For her Ph.D., she wrote a thesis entitled "Inductive inference on computer-generated patterns", which was based on designing algorithms to perform analytic differentiation on algebraic expressions. In the development of this thesis, she relied on one of the programming codes that is still used today in the area of high-performance computing, the CDC FORTRAN 63

If being one of the first women and nuns to make history wasn't enough, she also stirred up controversy in her time by continuously defending the idea that computers had to be a fundamental engine for education and therefore had to be present in classrooms. "We are experiencing an explosion of information, and it is obvious that information will not be useful unless it is accessible", Keller argued. 

As a result, in 1967, she co-founded the Association Supporting Computer Users in Education, ASCUE, which advocates for the application of computer technology in education. 

Her pioneering work in the field of computer science and programming was ahead of her time, influencing the industry and driving its development. Her greatest passion and dedication (to make computers accessible to everyone) also led her to found the Computer Science Department at Clarke College, now known as Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, thus supporting the presence of women in the field of computer science. 

In conclusion, Mary Kenneth Keller was, is, and will continue to be a great inspiration to all women in STEM who want to make a difference, and she will always be remembered for her pioneering achievements in computer science, as well as her impact on equal access.  

The history of technology development has rarely placed women who were pioneers in the field where they deserve to be. That is why the mothers of technology are great unknowns to many people.