Jean Sammet

Jean Sammet
New York City, NY, USA
Death date
Associated organizations
Sperry Rand, Sylvania, IBM, ACM
Fields of study
Lovelace Award, SIGPLAN Distinguished Service Award, Computer Pioneer Award


Jean E. Sammet was born in New York City on March 23rd, 1928. Taking an interest in mathematics from a young age, Sammet attended Julia Richman High School. After graduating high school, she attended Mount Holyoke College based on its strong mathematics program, where she earned a B.A. in Mathematics in 1948, and an M.A. in Mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1949. From 1948 to 1951, she was a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois. In 1951 she attempted to get a position in the New Jersey area teaching high school mathematics, but did not have two of the required courses.

Forgoing high school teaching, Sammet briefly started to work at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1951 where she learned how to use punched card accounting machines. In 1952, she left to enroll in a Ph.D. program at Columbia University. This was also short lived, and Sammet left the program in 1953, and accepted a position as a mathematician at Sperry Gyroscope, where she worked frmo 1953 to 1958. At Sperry, Sammet worked on mathematical analysis problems using an analog computer, and in 1955 she became one of the programmers on Sperry's digital computer, the Sperry Electronic Digital Automatic Computer (SPEEDAC). Later in 1955, Sperry and Remington Rand merged into Sperry Rand, and Sammet began to work with Grace Hopper and the UNIVAC.

Sammet left Sperry in 1958 to focus more on computers, and joined Sylvania Electric to lead software development on Sylvania's MOBIle DIgital Computer (MOBIDIC). In 1959, Sammet, along with Howard Bromberg, Howard Discount, Vernon Reeves, William Selden, and Gertrude Tierney, designed the influential COBOL language, as an attempt to create a portable data processing programming language.

In 1961, Sammet joined IBM where she developed FORmula MAnipulation Compiler (FORMAC), a FORTRAN-based computer mathematics language, and researched modelling programming and mathematical languages on the use of restricted English notation.

As an active member, and later Fellow, in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), she became the organization's first female president, serving from 1974 to 1976. In 1965, she founded the ACM's Special Interest Committee on Symbolic and Algebraic Manipulation (SICSAM). She was the recipient of the ACM's Lovelace Award in 1989, the 1997 SIGPLAN Distinguished Service Award, the 2009 IEEE Computer Society Computer Pioneer Award and the 2013 NCWIT Pioneer Award. Sammet was awarded an honorary doctorate from Mount Holyoke College in 1978.

Sammet died on May 20th, 2017.

Further Reading

The Computer Pioneers: An Experiment in Video Oral History Part One: Origins of Electronic Computation During World War II - Several group interviews featuring Sammet along with Helen Slotkin, Ithiel Pool, Richard Solomon, Brian Randell, Michael Woodger, Jan Rajchman, John Grist Brainerd, Herman Goldstine, Garry J. Tee, John McCarthy, Perry Crawford, Kenneth Bowles, Jay Stratton, Gordon Brown, Albert Hill, Nathan Rochester, Kay Mauchly, Harry Huskey, Gisela Hoelzl, Robert Fano, and Richard Clippinger.