Ruth M. Davis was born in 1928 in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania. Bucking the traditional path for women at the time, Davis studied math at American University, earning her BA in 1950 and continued on to earn her master’s (1952) and PhD (1955) in math from the University of Maryland, College Park, becoming the first women to receive a PhD in math from that university. Davis married George Lohr in 1961. He passed away in 1994.
While in school, Davis worked during the summers at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute for Standards and Technology) in computer and software engineering. Some of this early work of hers is now part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection. After earning her PhD, Davis wanted to work at IBM, but at the time the only jobs open to women at IBM were secretary positions, so Davis ended up working for Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, beginning a long career in public service with the federal government.
While working for the Navy, Davis created the first computer codes for nuclear reactor design as well as some of the first computer software for defense programs and space operations. Davis became the technical director of a program designed to create a system for managing the operations of the Navy around the world at age 27 and she continued to rise quickly in her field. She held positions at the National Bureau of Standards; the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; the National Library of Medicine; and the Intelligence and Reconnaissance section of the Department of the Navy, including director positions at the National Bureau of Standards Institute for Computer Sciences and Technology and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare National Center for Biomedical Communication. Davis eventually became the undersecretary of defense for research and advance technology and the assistant secretary of energy for resource applications.
Her impressive career included managing the US Uranium Enrichment Services, the Strategic Petroleum Reserves, the Federal Power Marketing Administrations, and the Naval Petroleum Reserves. Davis also started many important projects during her time in the federal government, such as the Department of Defense Directed Energy Program (i.e., high-energy lasers and particle beams), a satellite communication system for remote healthcare work in Alaska, and the first non-defense data encryption standard in the world, which is still in use today.
Davis retired from government work in 1980 and started the Pymatuning Group – a management company working on industrial modernization and technology development that she named after a woman-led Native American tribe in western Pennsylvania. She spent time as a lecturer at the University of Maryland, American University, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Pittsburgh, and was once a Regents Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She was also the chair of the board of trustees of the Aerospace Corporation from 1992 to 2000 and served on 14 other company and university boards.
Davis was the recipient of many awards and honors over the course of her career, including elected membership in the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Public Administration, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was selected as the Computer Science Man of the Year in 1979, prompting a change in the award name the following year. Additionally, Davis received the Director’s Choice Award of the National Women’s Economic Alliance in 1989, the Ada Augusta Lovelace Award for Computer Science in 1984, the Distinguished Service Medals from the Department of Energy (in 1981) and the Department of Defense (in 1979), the National Civil Service League Award in 1976, the Rockefeller Public Service Award for Professional Accomplishment and Leadership in 1973, and both the Federal Woman of the Year Award and the Department of Commerce Gold Medal in 1972. In 1988, Davis was added to the Government Computer News Hall of Fame and she was added to the University of Maryland Alumni Hall of Fame in 2000.
Davis passed away on March 28, 2012 at age 83.
Adapted from C. D. Mote Jr.’s tribute in the National Academies’ Memorial Tributes: Volume 17.