Influential Women #12: Elizebeth Smith Friedman

When one talks about cryptology during the First World War, William F. Friedman is among some of the names that are often mentioned. William Friedman is most commonly known for his introduction of mathematical and scientific methods into cryptology, which strongly improved information systems security. What many people don’t know, however, is that it was his wife who introduced him to cryptology in the first place.

Elizebeth S. Friendman grew up as the youngest of nine children. She was a very energetic child, who openly spoke her mind about everything: she never left a single opinion unsaid. When she got older, she spent a lot of time getting to know the world of fashion: not only did she work as a hairdresser and a seamstress, but she also had a job as a fashion consultant on the side, and was perceived as very talented in the field. Many encouraged her to pursue a career in fashion and disapproved when she didn’t. So how did this young woman become a cryptanalyst?

Unlike many other women her age, Elizebeth moved on to college after high school, where she studied English literature. There, she discovered her passion of language. She soon began to study Latin, Greek and German, and also developed a huge interest in the works of William Shakespeare. This interest took her to the Newberry Research Library in Chicago, where it was rumoured one of Shakespeare’s folios was kept. While working there, she applied for a job at a think thank near Riverbank, to research whether Shakespeare’s work could have been authored by Sir Francis Bacon.

Thanks to Elizebeth’s enthusiasm and broad linguistic knowledge, she was hired. The research mainly tried to prove the theory by use of a cipher that they thought was contained in every single one of Shakespeare’s work – and that is how Elizebeth was introduced to the science of cryptology. Soon, she became one of the most talented researchers at Riverbanks when it came to enciphering and deciphering secret messages within texts. She played a significant role within cryptology not only during the First and the Second World War, but also after, decoding messages sent by international smugglers and drug dealers.

Elizebeth S. Friedman worked as a cryptanalyst for the rest of her life. It is known that she worked closely together with her husband, but she made so many contributions to the field of cryptology by herself, too, that she is, without a doubt, one of the pioneers within the field of cryptology. Her methods are still used today to decode secret messages.

  • L. Parole
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