Celebrating Women in STEM: Ann Caracristi

When you hear “mathematician,” you probably think of a man in a sweater vest and large glasses, sitting in a stuffy office or teaching a boring class. However, there’s another branch of mathematics that plays an intricate role in our society: cryptography.

Cryptographers are the code-breakers and hackers of the world; they play an important part in our nation’s defense. In World War II, several women were asked to work as cryptographers for the U.S. government, and one especially talented cryptographer was Ann Caracristi.

Ann Zeilinger Caracristi was born on February 1, 1921, in Bronxville, New York. In 1942, she graduated from Russell Sage College, a women’s college in Troy, New York, as an English and History major. But a new opportunity changed her planned future.

After her graduation, a year after the U.S. entered World War II, Caracristi was recruited by the Army Signal Intelligence Service to work as a code breaker, at the recommendation of the Dean of Russell Sage.

Though she had no mathematical experience, Caracristi was sent to Washington, D.C., where she was exposed to the cryptanalysis courses of William Friedman. His collection of puzzles with varying levels of difficulty were used to train cryptographers in the art of pattern recognition.

In August 1942, Caracristi was moved to Arlington Hall, a girls’ school that the Army took control of during the war, which had been converted into an office for the cryptographers.

In a 2011 interview for the Veterans History Project (video available online), Caracristi recalled being told she would be working on the “Japanese problem,” to which she exclaimed, “Oh, heavens, I don’t know anything about Japanese!”

Caracristi worked on deciphering the additive systems used by Japanese military forces and merchant fleet. She later recalled that solving these problems “did not require a great deal of math, really; they required a great deal of ingenuity.”

Caracristi and her fellow code-breakers were some of the first people to learn of Japan’s planned surrender, which was deciphered on August 14, 1945.

After her outstanding performance during the war, Caracristi continued to break the security glass ceiling, working with a division that would later become part of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Caracristi was promoted to supergrade, a higher civil service paygrade, in 1959, and became the first woman to reach GS-18 (the highest supergrade) in 1975, when she became Chief of Research and Operations.

In 1980, Caracristi became the first woman to serve as NSA Deputy Director. That same year, she received the Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the highest award given to civilians.

She retired in 1982, but continued to serve on panels for the Intelligence Community, including President Clinton’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (appointed 1993). In 2003, Caracristi was given an honorary degree by the National Intelligence University, where an academic award in her name is given to a high-performing graduate student each year.

Caracristi passed away in January 2016, leaving behind an amazing legacy as a woman in STEM. She was buried next to her longtime partner, Gertrude Kirtland, another Army cryptographer.

Last year, Caracristi and many other women cryptographers were honored by The New York Times bestselling author Liza Mundy, in “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.”

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Monday in the Women’s Center, 2 – 3 p.m.

(Photo credit: nsa.gov)

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