Faith & Life


Sister Mary Kenneth Keller: Women’s Role Model for Work in the STEM Fields

By Cathi Douglas     6/27/2019

It’s imperative today to encourage young women to enter the STEM fields — to empower their work in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. 

One of the pioneers who first broke the gender barrier in the competitive, fast-paced world of computers was, perhaps surprisingly, a Catholic sister.  

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in 1965 became the first U.S. woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science. Her legacy is an ongoing inspiration to women who choose to study and work in traditionally male-dominated fields. 

Even before earning her terminal degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she helped implement the BASIC programming language, under the direction of John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz. 

Sister Keller believed in the power of computers to open the doors of higher education to women. Upon matriculating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she went on to develop instructional equipment that encouraged undergraduate computer studies. 

After directing one of the nation’s first computer programs at a small college for more than 20 years, Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, now features the Keller Computer Center and Information Services, which provides computer access to staff, faculty, and students and where she served as its first chairperson. 

From the beginning of her career, Sister Keller was an advocate for women’s studies in the scientific and technical fields. She helped establish the Association of Small Computer Users in Education, and wrote four books in the computer science field. 

In 1975, she prophetically noted, “we have not fully used the computer as the greatest interdisciplinary tool that has been invented to date.” 

Indeed, Sister Keller believed computers would help make people smarter and encourage them to think on their own. “For the first time, we can now mechanically simulate the cognitive process,” she said. “We can make studies in artificial intelligence. Beyond that, this mechanism [the computer] can be used to assist humans in learning. 

“As we are going to have more mature students in greater numbers as time goes on, this type of teaching will probably be increasingly important.” 

In addition, Sister Keller anticipated the growing importance of computers to libraries. “Its function in information retrieval will make it the hub of tomorrow’s libraries,” she noted. 

Sister Keller was born in Ohio in 1914, entered the Sisters of Charity in 1932, and professed her vows in 1940. She was supportive of working mothers, encouraging them to bring their babies with them to class if necessary. 

Despite the overarching belief that women belonged in the home and not in the workplace, she believed that women could play significant roles in advancing science. 

There is much to learn from Sister Keller’s example. Recognizing her trail-blazing success in a man’s world, today’s women can anticipate workplaces that increasingly welcome their valuable contributions in science, mathematics, and technology.