Forgotten Women in STEM: Mary Allen Wilkes

Mary Allen Wilkes

Episode three of Forgotten Women in STEM (read here episode one and two).

Mary Allen Wilkes has a fascinating story and she is the living proof that women can achieve the impossible and excel in many professions.

She was born in Chicago in 1937 and she initially wanted a career in law, but she was discourage due to the difficulties for women in the legal environment in the 50s. At the time, women who managed to successfully finish law school were given jobs as legal secretaries, law librarians, or other “women job”. 

She decided to take an undergraduate degree in philosophy and she followed her eighth-grade geography teacher’s suggestion: to work as programmer. At that time almost no-one had coding experience and a philosophy graduate was an excellent programmer because of her ability to use logic and symbols.

Wilkes started working at the MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, where she developed a programming language on LINC. In 1965 she self-designed and used a computer in her home, thus she is considered to be the first home computer user. In the same year, Wilkes left MIT and began working at the Computer Systems Laboratory, where she designed the multiply macromodule.

I also really finally got to the point where I said, “I don’t think I want to do this for the rest of my life

Mary Allen Wilkes on her decision to leave computer science and practice law

In the 70s Wilkes went back to reach her original dream, enrolled at Harvard University Law School, became an attorney and practiced law for forty years. She served as head of the Economic Crime and Consumer Protection Division of the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts. She taught in the Trial Advocacy Program at the Harvard Law School. In 2001 Mary Ann Wilkes became an arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association, dealing with cases involving computer science and information technology.

How incredible is this woman?!

Mary Allen Wilkes nowadays

References:

NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/magazine/women-coding-computer-programming.html

Btw, stuff you should know: https://mhebtw.azurewebsites.net/?p=8313

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Allen_Wilkes

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