RUTH M. DAVIS - NAE election, 1976

RUTH M. DAVIS (1928–2012)

NAE election, 1976; citation: “Contributions to computer science, particularly information science technology.”

Ruth Margaret Davis was a pioneer in satellites and computers in support of numerous federal agency programs.


She landed a position in the mid-1950s with Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, who sought computer people to help him create the nuclear navy. Davis wrote the first computer codes for nuclear reactor design, and then was tasked with establishing the Navy’s first Command and Control Technology Organization to design a system for managing naval operations worldwide.

She went on to hold management positions at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), and National Library of Medicine, and in the Navy’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance. She directed the NBS Institute for Computer Sciences and Technology (ICST) and was the first director of the HEW National Center for Biomedical Communication. As DoD deputy undersecretary of defense for research and advanced technology, she managed $4 billion of R&D programs and created some of the earliest software for defense and space applications. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter appointed her assistant secretary of energy for resource applications.

She initiated major projects such as the first data encryption standard (DES) for nondefense computer systems; the first satellite communications system for remote healthcare applications, in Alaska (HEW); and the online network for medical literature retrieval, MEDLINE.

Her telemedicine work led her to think about personal privacy issues associated with the possible interception of medical information, so she led a team at the NBS ICST to develop the public DES that is used today.

In 1980 Davis retired from the federal government and founded the Pymatuning Group, named after a Pennsylvania native tribe headed by a woman chief. The company specialized in industrial modernization strategies and technology development (e.g., microelectronics, computers, automation, and robotics).


Some of her earliest work on computers and software is in the Smithsonian Institution. She was named Computer Science Man of the Year in 1979 (the award name was changed in 1980), and selected for the Department of Commerce Gold Medal (1972), Distinguished Service Medals from the DoD (1979) and Department of Energy (1981), and the Ada Augusta Lovelace Award for Computer Science (1984), among others.


Doctorate in hand, she approached IBM in 1955 for a job in computers, but at the time the company had only secretarial positions for women.

Davis never talked about being a woman working in a man’s world; she emphasized what you do, not who you are. In one interview she marvelled, “You go to work in the morning, come home in the evening after you worked on something that had never been done before.”

In 1961 she married George Lohr, who passed away in 1994.

Education: BA in mathematics, American University, 1950; MA (1952) and PhD (1955) in mathematics, University of Maryland, College Park, where she was the first woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics.