Wellesley Women Were Pioneers in Code Breaking and Code Making

A woman holds an iPad with old photos of women.
Image credit: Look What She Did
March 22, 2019

Wellesley women have a long history of contributing to the field of computer science. During World War II, some students and professors were instrumental in the formation of a top-secret military intelligence operation assembled to decipher German and Japanese military codes; later, alumnae worked to advance programming and software.

The website Look What She Did, which features little-known stories of groundbreaking achievements by women, recently posted a video about a group of Wellesley students recruited to work as code breakers for the Department of Defense during World War II.

Lynne M. Miller ’73 found archival information on the code breakers during a search for information about Wellesley in the 1940s as a favor for a friend whose mother attended Wellesley during that time.  She found a reference to the code breakers in the 1942 class notes section of Wellesley Magazine.  She also found a reference to an article that was published in a 2000 issue of the magazine.  Wellesley Archives provided her with copies of the articles.

“The story of the Wellesley code breakers was so compelling that I mentioned it to a friend,” said Miller. The friend happened to be an advisory board member for Look What She Did.

Actress Zehra Fazal ’05 was contacted to narrate the video. She said because so many young men were enlisting in the military, “that left women’s colleges as an interesting avenue to mine some of this brainpower.”

Helen Dodson, professor of astronomy at Wellesley at the time, and Barbara McCarthy, professor of Greek, were put in charge of recruiting students who “might be uniquely skilled to be a code breaker,” said Fazal. 

Training for the new unit began with courses, taught in secret in the campus observatory to avoid detection, about the history and fundamentals of cryptanalysis, or code breaking.  

From Wellesley, the first recruits from the class of 1942 were sent to Washington to join WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Wellesley later provided more recruits from the classes of ’43 and ’44. In all, around 11,000 women from Wellesley and other women’s colleges worked as code breakers. The crucial intelligence they helped supply shortened the war by a year, saving tens of thousands of lives.

A little more than a decade later, Wellesley women were finding their way into the nascent field of computer programming. A recent New York Times Magazine story about women pioneers in computer science profiled Mary Allen Wilkes ’59.

A philosophy major, she landed a job at MIT as a computer programmer on the day of her graduation from Wellesley. One of her assignments was to write code for the IBM 704. Later, she would write software for what was then a new project: LINC, one of the world’s first interactive personal computers.

Though the field is now dominated by men, women were the earliest innovators, Wilkes told the Times. She said young coders she speaks with are often shocked to hear that. “Their mouths are agape,” she said. “They have no idea.”