PBS spotlights former Wooster student and cryptanalyst

Elizebeth Smith Friedman attended The College of Wooster from 1911-1913 prior to her trailblazing career in codebreaking

January 10, 2021   /  
Elizebeth Smith Friedman
Elizebeth Smith Friedman

On Jan. 11, PBS premieres “The Codebreaker,” which tells the story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a cryptanalyst for the U.S. government during the 20th century and former College of Wooster Student. Based on Jason Fagone’s biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, the program highlights the career of Friedman who decoded messages that brought down gangsters and a Nazi spy ring.

Friedman studied Greek and English at the College from 1911-1913 before transferring to Hillsdale College in Michigan where she majored in English literature. She was introduced to cryptology after being recruited to decode supposed ciphers in William Shakespeare’s writing. In the 1920s, Friedman worked for the United States Coast Guard to decode a reported 12,000 codes from radio messages that led to hundreds of federal prosecutions. During World War II, she worked on the team that broke codes by Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine and exposed a ring of German spies in South America. According to the program’s description, “Her remarkable contributions would [only] come to light decades after her death, when secret government files were unsealed.”

Additionally, Friedman, considered a trailblazer in the male-dominated fieldof cryptology, was honored over the summer by the Coast Guard with the naming of its 11th Legend-Class National Security Cutter, a technologically advanced vessel named after those who made significant contributions in its history.

PBS’s “The Codebreaker” emphasizes the role of Friedman who, alongside her cryptologist husband William, helped pioneer the emerging field of cryptology into what it looks like today.