Kelly McSweeney

Dec 23rd 2020

Remembering Computer Science Pioneer Frances Allen


Frances Allen was a pioneer in computer science. Recruited to IBM in 1957, Allen was an early computer scientist who was a human-to-machine translator and a trailblazer for women in STEM.

She died on her 88th birthday on Aug. 4, 2020.

Who Was Frances Allen?

Born in 1932, she spent her childhood on her family’s farm in upstate New York. According to IBM, she studied mathematics and intended to be a teacher. Allen earned her undergraduate degree from The New York State College for Teachers (now SUNY Albany) and then a master’s from the University of Michigan. She started her career as a high school math teacher in her hometown, but in order to repay her student loans, she took a position as a programmer at IBM Research. To her surprise, she ended up staying with the company for her entire career.

Building the Foundations of Computer Science

She specialized in early programming languages and compilers, the software programs that convert code that humans understand into binary code that machines understand. Her many notable contributions to computing include:

  1. FORTRAN: A high-level programming language that made coding much more productive. The Turing Award notes that she started at IBM just two months after FORTRAN was released. She had to learn it and teach it to her colleagues all at once.
  2. Compilers: Programs that translate code written in languages that humans understand into machine language that a computer’s processor can use.
  3. High-performance computing: An example is the STRETCH project, one of the first super computers, which the U.S. National Security Agency used to decode messages. Computers were primitive at the time, and she helped create STRETCH in 1961, which was by far the fastest computer in the world at the time.

Pioneering Women in STEM

In an interview archived by IEEE, Allen described her early years at IBM as “a golden era for computing” when many women in STEM were employed doing highly technical work. In the early years of computing, female coders were common, but as the field matured in the late-1960s through the 1980s, women were pushed out.

“As it became a profession and as processes and requirements emerged,” Allen said, “there were structures that were put in place, many of which were management structures and process structures.” She added, “It became an avenue that women were pretty much shut out of, in general.”

Allen was the first female IBM Fellow, the highest honor for a technical person at IBM. The original certificate form misgendered her, since the default had always been men.

She spent many years mentoring women who were early in their careers. In 2000, IBM established the Frances E. Allen Women in Technology Mentoring Award in her honor, according to The Washington Post. She was the first woman to win the Turing Award, a prestigious award that is akin to the Nobel Prize in computing.

During her many awards acceptance speeches, Allen expressed that women were not celebrated enough for their work in computer science and was an outspoken advocate for pioneering women in STEM. Her contributions to computer science provide the foundation for today’s advanced computing.