Who was Grace Hopper?

By Veena McCoole BA '19

Grace Murray Hopper ’30 MA, '34 PhD (1906-1992), a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and a pioneering computer scientist who helped develop one of the first programming languages, COBOL, officially will replace John C. Calhoun as the namesake of one of Yale’s residential colleges on July 1. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2016.

After completing her undergraduate degree and teaching at Vassar College, Hopper earned an MA in Mathematics in 1930 from Yale, followed by a PhD in 1934. In a doctoral class of ten, Hopper was one of four women. The new college name officially includes Hopper’s first name, Grace, as a reminder of the female namesake.

In a letter to the campus community, President Peter Salovey wrote: “An extraordinary mathematician and a senior naval officer, Hopper achieved eminence in fields historically dominated by men. Today, her principal legacy is all around us — embodied in the life-enhancing technology she knew would become commonplace. Grace Murray Hopper College thus honors her spirit of innovation and public service while looking fearlessly to the future.”

“Grace Murray Hopper was one of the world's first computer scientists, and she literally invented many of the key elements of computer programming as we know it, from subroutines to machine-independent languages,” said Grace Hopper Professor and Chair of Computer Science, Joan Feigenbaum. “Grace Murray Hopper College will be a tangible symbol of Yale's commitment to women's equality and to the importance of Computer Science.”

Hopper also lends her name to the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC), the world’s largest gathering of women in technology produced by the Anita Borg Institute. This year’s conference will be held from October 4-6th in Orlando, FL. Yale’s Department of Computer Science sponsors students to attend this conference each year.

Head of Hopper College, Julia Adams, said she thinks the “best traditions” of the college are honored and elevated by being identified with the story of an “inspirational figure and remarkable person.”

At a recent Town Hall meeting held at Hopper for the purpose of discussing new traditions, chants and mascots for the renamed college before the class of 2021 arrives, students were excited about a new college name as well as Grace Hopper’s achievements in the Navy and in Computer Science.

Isa Magraner ’19, the upcoming president of the Hopper College Council, said she is inspired by both the people who fought to change the college's name, and by the woman herself who takes the place of John C. Calhoun's name. “I am extremely excited to help lead the community in deciding how we will honor Grace Hopper as a woman, a civil servant, and a brilliant mind, and incorporate her legacy into the college's future customs and practices,” she said.

Hopper, a forward-thinking champion of progress, seemed to understand the decades-long process of rethinking the Calhoun name. In the words of Grace herself: “People have an enormous tendency to resist change. They love to say, 'We've always done it this way.' I try to fight that.”

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