Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper—or “Amazing Grace” to those familiar with her many accomplishments—was a pioneering mathematician and computer scientist. She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University, and one of the first women to reach the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy. Though Admiral Hopper faced many obstacles as a woman in many male-dominated fields, she never let them faze her indefatigable spirit.
Since Yale College was not co-educational when Hopper was ready for college at 17, she attended Vassar College. Despite failing the entrance exam in Latin (which delayed her matriculation for a year), Hopper graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in math and physics. After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Hopper received a fellowship to Yale University where she completed her M.A. in mathematics in 1930. While teaching at Vassar, she finished her dissertation in 1934.
At Vassar, Hopper was a popular professor who was both engaging and knowledgeable. She audited a variety of classes that allowed her to connect mathematics to various aspects of her students’ lives. During her sabbatical in the fall of 1941, Hopper studied partial differential equations under Richard Courant at NYU, which later became important in her work with the Navy.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor strongly inspired Hopper to enlist and serve her country. Initially rejected because of her small stature, Hopper convinced the Navy of her value as a mathematician and received an exemption. In 1943, Hopper obtained a leave of absence from Vassar to enlist in the Navy Reserve WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) Program. She graduated first in her class from the Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School at Smith College in 1944 and was assigned second in command at Harvard University’s Computation Lab under Howard Aiken.
Despite Aiken’s initial disappointment at having a woman as his second in command, Hopper gained his trust and excelled because of her work ethic and natural leadership skills. Hopper and her team programmed the Mark I computer to solve ballistics equations for the war effort. Drawing on her training at NYU, Hopper and her team wrote code that proved uranium and plutonium could be used together to make a successful atomic bomb, the key finding that enabled the weapon to be used in WWII.
While she made an important contribution to the Manhattan project, Hopper’s greatest achievements are arguably in her contributions to the nascent field of computer science. She’s credited with inventing the subroutine and building the first compiler, both innovations that made computer science more accessible to programmers without a Ph.D. in mathematics or computer science.