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Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was an American nun, educator and pioneer in computer science. She was involved in the development of the BASIC computer programming language and was the first American woman to earn a PhD in computer science.

Keller entered the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed virgin Mary in 1932 and took her vows in 1940. There is little known about her early life, so little in fact that even the year of her birth is disputed. After taking her vows, Keller studied and earned a both a B.S. in Mathematics and a M.S. in Mathematics and Physics.

Times weren’t exactly easy as a woman in STEM, but Sister Keller was able to make a place for herself in a society that wasn’t the most hospitable. In 1958 Dartmouth College relaxed it’s ‘male only’, allowing her to start work at their computer science centre. While she was there Sister Keller worked under John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz and helped to develop the computer programming language BASIC. BASIC is a language that was designed with ease of use in mind, that helped to broaden computer programming into non maths and science fields. Unlike other programming languages, which could only be used by mathematician or scientists, BASIC could be used by anyone who was willing and able to learn how.

In 1965 Sister Keller was the first American women to be awarded a PhD in computer science.

Sister Keller was a strong believer in the potential for computers to increase access to information and promote education, and after attaining her PhD she founded the computer science department at Clarke College in Iowa. She led the department for 20 years. Even though women’s involvement in computer science wasn’t considered important at the time, Sister Keller was passionate about making education and information accessible to everyone. While leading the department she held classes for adult students, which were regularly attended by working mothers who brought their kids to class with them.

Well ahead of her time, Sister Keller envisioned a world where computers would make people smarter and even predicted how important AI would be in the future.

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was an incredible woman who defied social and cultural norms of her time, and in doing so she helped develop a game changing programming language, started her own computer science department, and was the first woman in American to earn a PhD in computer science.

March was Women’s History Month and at Disruptor’s Handbook, we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some of the inspirational and influential women that have made a difference in the world of technology! If you’d like to see more posts like this, or have a suggestion of people we should profile in the future, get in touch and let us know.