America’s WWI female codebreakers: Elizebeth Friedman, Agnes Meyer.

Smith

Elizebeth Smith, from the Hillsdale College Wolverine, 1915

Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892–1980) was born in Huntington, IN, and earned a degree in English literature from Hillsdale College (MI) in 1915. She married cryptology pioneer Herbert Friedman in 1917. At Riverbank Laboratories in Illinois she deciphered traffic between Germany and Mexico as well as messages regarding a Hindu-German conspiracy (which resulted in defendants shot dead in a San Francisco courtroom); she also helped train individuals in cryptology. Friedman later worked for the Signal Corps; for the Treasury Dept and Coast Guard, she was particularly effective in cracking codes used in drug and alcohol smuggling. In World War II she worked on the Japanese “Purple” code and provided evidence of the pro-Japan spy activities of Velvalee Dickinson (aka “the Doll Woman”).

Audio: Listen to a 1974 interview in which Friedman discusses her World War I work, or read the transcript.

Meyer

Agnes Meyer, from the 1909 Otterbein Sybil.

Nicknamed “Madame X,” Geneseo (IL)-born Agnes Meyer (1889–1971) graduated from Ohio State in 1911 and enlisted in the Navy as a Yeoman (F) in June 1918. Versed in French, German, Japanese, and Latin, she worked in the Postal and Cable Censorship Office. Her job was to examine telegrams and letters for indications of espionage or security breaches. Next, she was assigned to the director of naval communications’ Code and Signal Section, which created codes and ciphers for the Navy. After the war, she continued in this office as a civilian employee, had a stint at the “Black Chamber” in New York, and worked on an early version of a cipher machine.

Meyer married Washington, DC, attorney Michael Driscoll and taught cryptanalysis to Navy personnel. During World War II, she worked on Japanese and German codebreaking. Described as “without peer as a cryptoanalyst” by Rear Admiral Edwin Layton, she remained with the NSA until her retirement in 1959. She died in 1971 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

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