Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Meet Beatrice Worsley, Canada's Pioneering Computer Scientist

Beatrice Worsley (pic courtesy of Women in Computing, Cambridge University)

Meet Beatrice Worsley, Computer Scientist and Canadian STEM Pioneer.

Beatrice Worsely of Toronto has just been recognized with an inaugural Lifetime Achievement in Computer Science Award by the Canadian Association of Computer Science. 

Yet, few people in Canada have heard of her.

According to her biographer and champion, Scott M. Campbell of the University of Waterloo, “Beatrice Worsley was a pioneering computer scientist and the first female in Canada to make significant contributions to the field.”

The FIRST woman computer scientist in Canada- and few people know her name?  What a shame!
Maybe it’s just a case of nice girls don’t make history. After all, according to Professor Campbell, Worsley did have a quiet and accommodating character.

A photograph of Worsley (published in Campbell’s biographical paper for the IEEE Annals of the History of Computer)1 reveals a good-looking woman with dark brown hair done up in a soft 1940’s do, wearing a neat tweed suit. Her expression is neutral, but her eyes do sparkle playfully.

Campbell says that Beatrice Worsley “had a short but very productive scientific career” in the Canadian military, at the University of Toronto and at Queen’s University in Kingston.

She was born in 1921, in Mexico to British parents. She had an older brother, Charles. The family moved to Toronto so their children could go to school.

Beatrice was educated at Toronto’s Bishop Strachan School, where she excelled at maths and just about everything else. Upon graduation she won the Governor General’s award for the highest marks in her class.

For her post graduate studies she attended Trinity College at the University of Toronto, enrolling in sciences, then moving on to specialize in mathematics and physics. Here, too, she graduated first of her class, in 1944, with a Bachelor of Arts in Math and Physics.

As this was wartime, “Trixie” went to work for the military as a Navy WREN.  She applied for and was granted laboratory work, researching harbour defence.

After demobilization her computer career began in earnest, says Campbell. Worsley took a graduate degree at MIT in Boston writing a dissertation that “provided a snapshot of contemporary computing technology.”

Working at M.I.T., a leader in computing technologies, was Worsley’s SPARK moment. When she returned home she told her family that her future was in computers.

Her family likely didn’t understand what that meant. This was 1947. The Computer Age was still in its infancy.  Few had ever heard the word ‘computer’. But Beatrice Worsley was on the forefront of it all. “She was quickly becoming an expert in these new technologies.”

 “Returning to Canada was a step backwards for scientist,” says Campbell. Worsley first found work in aerodynamic research. She soon quit that job to join the University of Toronto’s Computational Centre, the only place in Canada with a computer research development program, as a project manager.

In 1948, Worsley was sent overseas to Cambridge University where she witnessed a momentous event in computing history, the unveiling of the EDSAC computer. Recording this event for a prestigious journal “earned Worsley a place in history,” says her biographer.

Worsley stayed at Cambridge to audit advanced math and physics courses toward a doctorate, which she completed at home in 1952, making her the first person in Canada to write a PhD thesis on a computer science topic.

“Worsley was now one of the most computer-literate women in the world.”

At U of T Worsely taught extension, undergraduate and graduate courses and published 17 papers. In 1965, she moved on to Queen’s University “to start afresh and launch a new computational center.” She died of a heart attack in 1977.

So, why haven’t we Canadians heard of Beatrice Worsley before now?

Unlike the 1910’s, when pioneering career women were written about extensively in newspapers and magazines, the late 1930’s and 1940’s had other preoccupations. The post-war 1950’s were kind of ‘back-to-the-kitchen’ for working women and the 1960’s, even with ‘women’s lib’ were rebellion and youth-oriented.

And all through the 20th Century the phrase ‘woman mathematician’ was considered by many people to be something of a contradiction in terms. Let’s face it, many people still think it is.

So, it’s been a long wait but Beatrice Worsely, Canadian computer science pioneer and STEM super-achiever, has been finally recognized for her contributions to the world of science, especially in Canada.

Nice girl or not.

All quotes in this essay were taken from Scott Campbell’s IEEE paper, available HERE on his website. LINK.

Scott is working on an exhibit for next year, tentatively titled "The Computer Girls", to be hosted at the University of Waterloo Computer Museum (, about early social attitudes towards pioneering women in computing in the 1950s and 1960s.