When I was little, my dad bought an Apple II+ computer. Every Christmas, my uncle would send us a pack of computer games on 5.25-inch floppy disks. We spent countless hours playing those games on its primitive green pixelated screen. It was fun to play games made by somebody else, but even better was when I learned to make the computer do what I wanted it to do, with a little programming. I learned a very simple computer language called Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC. With it, I made my own games, limited only by my imagination and skill. For the freedom that programming in BASIC gave me, I have to thank a nun: Sr. Mary Kenneth Keller.
She was born Evelyn Marie Keller on Dec 17, 1913 (different sources disagree on this date) in Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1932, she joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where she took the name Mary Kenneth, and she professed vows in 1940.
She then went to DePaul University in Chicago, where she received a B.S. in mathematics in 1943, and continued on to receive an M.S. in mathematics and physics in 1953.
During her graduate studies, she was also affiliated with other universities, including Dartmouth, Purdue, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin. She was part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s brand-new computer science program, and received its first Ph.D. on June 7, 1965.
This makes her one of the first two people in the United States to receive a doctorate in computer sciences (Irving Tang at Washington University in St. Louis received a Sci.D. on the same day), and perhaps the first woman ever to receive a Ph.D. in the field. (She is certainly the first woman in the U.S. to do so, but I am having difficulty confirming the fact worldwide.)
After finishing her degree, the Sisters of Charity of the B.V.M. assigned her to Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa. There, she founded and directed the computer science department, where she stayed for the next 20 years. During this time, she was a strong advocate both for women in computer sciences and for the use of computing resources in education. She founded the Association of Small Computer Users in Education.
She died on January 10, 1985.
Sr. Mary Kenneth Keller is most noteworthy for her role in helping develop the BASIC computer programming language. She had received an exception from what was then male-only Dartmouth College to attend their National Science Foundation workshop on computer science. At this workshop, she worked with John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz on the implementation of the BASIC kernel.
Keller also anticipated the ubiquity of computing in fields outside of computer science, as well as the development of artificial intelligence.
The computer center at Clarke University is named in her honor. The university has also endowed a computer science scholarship that bears her name.