Computer pioneer Jean Sammet ’48 has died

When Jean Sammet was given her first computer programming assignment, the field was so new that she had no books or papers to refer to. “I only had the instructions for the computer and what little brain power I had gotten from Mount Holyoke,” she said.

Updated on June 5, 2017, at 10:05 a.m.: Jean Sammet's New York Times obituary said, "her most enduring legacy is the role she played in the creation and longevity of COBOL."

By Sasha Nyary

In 1956, Jean E. Sammet ’48 was working for Sperry Gyroscope, analyzing torpedo trajectories from submarines. One day her boss’s boss came over and asked if she knew about the new computer the company was building.  

“I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t know anything more,’” Sammet said, relating the story during a talk at Mount Holyoke College in 2016. “And he said, ‘Do you want to be our programmer?’ And I said, ‘What’s a programmer?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but I know we need one.’”  

Sammet, who died on May 20 at the age of 89, was a pioneer in the field of computer science when computers were actually people — almost exclusively women — who acted as human calculators. One of the creators of modern computer science, her accomplishments include inventing the programming language FORMAC and co-creating COBOL, a programming language that is still used today. She also wrote an early book on programming and was the first female president of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM).

For these accomplishments Sammet was named a fellow of the Computer History Museum and received numerous accolades, including ACM’s Distinguished Service Award, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Computer Pioneer Award and the Pioneer Award from the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Although less well-known outside the industry, Sammet was revered within her circle and profiled earlier this year by Glamour magazine

Jean Sammet was born in New York City on March 23, 1928, to Ruth and Harry Sammet, who were both attorneys. Her deep interest in mathematics began when she was 7 years old, but she was unable to attend Bronx Science High School because it did not admit girls.  

After graduating from Julia Richmond High School, Sammet chose to attend Mount Holyoke because of its strength in mathematics. She received her B.A. in 1948 and earned an M.A. in mathematics from the University of Illinois in 1949. She took classes toward her Ph.D. at Columbia University before deciding academia was not for her.

After working at Sperry Gyroscope, Sammet worked for Sylvania, where she was a member of the original COBOL group. She joined IBM in 1962, where she developed the FORMAC programming language, the first widely used computer language for symbolic manipulation of mathematical formulas. Her book on programming languages, “Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals,” was published in 1969.

Sammet liked to tell a story about how much she loved programming, describing a time while working at Sperry Gyroscope in the mid-1950s. She was asked to train a new hire and after orienting him, she checked on him an hour later. She found him poring over a page of computer code with a big grin on his face.

“I said, ‘Did your program run?’ And he said no. ‘Well, why are you looking so happy?’” Sammet asked.  

“I can’t believe they’re paying me to have all this fun,” the man responded.

Sammet said, “I’ve always thought that was the best description of programming I’ve ever heard.”  

Sammet returned often to Mount Holyoke, and was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from her alma mater in 1978. Grace Hopper, a contemporary of Sammet who is often referred to as “the mother of computing,” wrote a recommendation for the honor. Sammet also taught classes, gave talks and lectures, and provided financial support to faculty and students interested in math and computer science. 

Her commitment to Mount Holyoke included endowing the Jean Sammet ’48 Lecture, which invites leaders in the field to speak on campus. And in 2016, she established the Jean E. Sammet Endowed Chair in Computer Science, which will be filled on July 1 by Valerie Barr ’77, a former chair of ACM's Council on Women and former program director at the National Science Foundation in the Division of Undergraduate Education.

Barr, a former professor at Union College, had known of Sammet’s work and met her several times through their Mount Holyoke association. She said Sammet didn’t care about convention or expectations.

“She wasn't the sort of firebrand who scaled barricades and carried banners, she was the sort who proved she was capable through her actions,” Barr said. “She did her work and made a tremendous mark in computer science as a result. She deserves tremendous credit for her contributions, especially around developing COBOL.” 

Sammet was remarkably prescient, Barr said, remembering a conversation the two shared in 2016 about a class Sammet had co-taught at Mount Holyoke in 1973. The class focused on interdisciplinary applications of computing.

“I still remember the forthright way in which Jean said, ‘We didn't focus on the easy stuff like science and engineering, we brought in archaeologists and anthropologists and talked about uses of computing in fields like that,’” Barr said. “Today that seems pretty normal, but in 1973 that was way ahead of the curve. That sums up Jean.”