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IBM Computer Scientist Frances E. Allen, Who Advanced Modern Computing, Dies at 88

IEEE established the Frances E. Allen Medal in her honor this year

3 min read
Photograph of Frances E. Allen
Photo: IBM Research

THE INSTITUTE Computing pioneer Frances E. Allen, an IEEE Fellow, died on 4 August, the day of her 88th birthday.

Earlier this year, IEEE established a medal in her honor. Sponsored by IBM, the Allen Medal recognizes innovative work in computing that led to a lasting impact on the field of engineering, technology, or science.

“Fran will be remembered as a pioneer in the world of computing who made seminal contributions to the field of optimizing compilers,” said Dario Gil, the director of IBM Research, in a statement published by The Washington Post. “She left an enduring mark on IBM and will be remembered not only for her technical vision and legacy, but also her passion to inspire and help others, especially women.”

Allen was the first woman to receive the Association for Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award in 2006 for her contributions to computing.

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Allen grew up on a farm in Peru, N.Y. She was inspired to teach mathematics by one of her high school teachers, according to a 2002 oral history conducted by the IEEE History Center.

She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1954 from the New York State College for Teachers, now the State University of New York at Albany. After graduating, Allen taught math at the same high school from which she had graduated.

After two years of teaching, she decided to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While there, she took a handful of basic computing classes and learned how to program an IBM 650 data-processing machine, according to her biography on the Turing Award website.

IBM recruited Allen and offered her a position in the company’s research division, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1957, she began teaching the company’s researchers Fortran, the first high-level programming language. She planned to work at the company until she paid off her student loans, but she ended up staying at IBM for her entire 45-year career, retiring in 2002.

She was the first woman to be named an IBM Fellow, the highest honor the company bestows on scientists, engineers, and programmers.

During her career, she developed a number of cutting-edge programming-language compilers.

In the early 1960s she led a team of researchers that designed one of the first supercomputers—the Stretch Harvest—for the U.S. National Security Agency. The machine could decrypt messages using three different programming languages: Alpha, Autocoder, and Fortran.

She designed and built the machine-independent, language-independent optimizing component of the Experimental Compiler for IBM’s Advanced Computing Systems. The code helped drive technological improvements of hardware design, and it created a new way to analyze and transform programs.

Allen wrote a seminal paper, “Program Optimization,” first published internally at IBM in 1966. It describes a robust new framework for implementing program analysis and optimization as well as a powerful set of new algorithms. “A Catalog of Optimizing Transformations”—a paper she wrote with John Cocke, a computer scientist who is considered to be the “father of RISC architecture,” that was published in 1972—identified many transformations commonly used today.

Allen took great pride in mentoring new IBM employees, especially women who joined the organization, according to the 2002 oral history.

When “people come to an organization, particularly if they’ve just come out of school, they suddenly find themselves in a very alien environment,” Allen said in 2002. “The culture is different, and how to succeed is very puzzling, and there’s a management system and a performance evaluation system. I had started to try and make myself a focal point for women who were entering our organization. I could try and help them build networks.”

In 2000 IBM established the Frances E. Allen Women in Technology Mentoring Award.

Allen was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Engineering. She was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 1997 and received the 2002 Lovelace Award from the Association for Women in Computing.

In her free time, Allen was an avid mountain climber and studied environmental issues, according to her obituary on IBM’s Research Blog. She was a member of the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Canada.

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