After yesterday’s post about role models, I realized I should try to highlight some of my favorite female role models in STEM fields. First up is Rear Admiral “Amazing” Grace Hopper. She was not only a pioneer in the field of computer science, she was also one of the very first female Admirals, and had an impressive breadth of academic and professional skills.
She’s not nearly as widely known as she should be, because she achieved some truly great things. For what would have been her 107th birthday last year, she was honored with a Google Doodle for the day, which helped bring attention to some of her accomplishments. She earned a PhD in mathematics from Yale in the 1930s, when such a thing was extremely rare. During WWII she felt called to serve and left her teaching job to join the Navy Reserves.
While in the Navy she worked on the Navy’s first computer, the Mark I, at Harvard, as well as several of its follow-on variants. She is credited for coining the term “bug in the system” when an actual moth in one of the massive early computers was fouling things up – so she was the first de-bugger. She also created the COBOL programming language and invented the compiler. Her creative mind was unparalleled, and she was always pushing for change – my favorite quote of hers is that “The most damaging phrase in the language is `We’ve always done it this way.'”
She served so long that at one point she was the oldest woman serving in the Navy. There is a Navy destroyer named after her, the USS Hopper, which is currently deployed. She was gifted and driven and she had a passion for developing the next generation, saying, “Our young people are the future. We must provide for them. We must give them the positive leadership they’re looking for…You manage things; you lead people.”
If you’d like to know more about this pioneer in computer science, I recommend her page on the Navy history website, which has her official biography and some good anecdotes about her life and worth.