Agnes Meyer Driscoll, Athena, code breaker, Cryptanalysis, first woman, History, immigrants, military, Ohio, Ohio History, Ohio Women, Ohio Womens History, Women, World War II
Agnes May Driscoll, née Meyer (July 24, 1889 – September 16, 1971, Leo/Athena), known by colleagues as Madame X or Miss Aggie. At first glance you might see a very timid woman in her photographs. You are suddenly caught by her eyes and this is when you realize her wisdom, strength and character. Unfortunately, Agnes is probably the most difficult woman I have chosen to write about on this blog because only one paper has been written about her and she
was a cryptanalyst, something I know nothing about. I am extremely grateful to
Beth Weinhardt, Local History Manager at the Westerville Library, for allowing me to spend time in their history museum reading this paper. Beth is also the writer of the “Images of America: Westerville” booklet that can be found at stores here in Ohio (but also on Amazon). This coming weekend, July 22, 2017, at 2pm, the Westerville Library will be honoring Agnes by placing a plaque outside the front of the library. The section of the library where this will be placed also happens to be the home Agnes and her family lived in until 1903. This is the time when the Anti-Saloon League purchased the property but then later sold it to the library in the 1930’s.
At the age of six years old, Agnes and her family moved to Westerville, from Illinois as her father had accepted a position at the newly opened “Otterbein College,” as a Professor of Music. Her father was Dr. Gustav Meyer, a German
immigrant from a town called Neustadt on Reibenberg near Hanover. Her mother, Lucy Andrews Meyer was American. The family had only three children at the time of the move to Westerville, with Agnes being the youngest but it would soon grow to a total of eight children. Dr. Meyer was also an accomplished pianist and like his father, he would share his love of music with the family. Agnes would go on to study music and become an accomplished pianist herself. Also, like her father, fluent in several languages. Dr. Meyer also ran a very strict household, demanding obedience. As you read the paper “The Neglected Giant,” 2015, by Kevin Wade Johnson of the National Security Administration (NSA), on Agnes, a deceased colleague from this agency, you begin to empathize with her personality.
Agnes was from a time before women had the right to vote. She would be 31 years old before she was able to do so for the first time. Prior to joining the U.S. Navy in 1917, she achieved degrees from both Otterbein and OSU. She received a Bachelor’s degree (listed in the paper as an A.B.) in Mathematics, Physics, Foreign Languages and Music and taught for some time. At the age of 28, in 1917, this was the first time the Navy allowed women to enlist and they were only allowed to be in clerical positions. Their view on women did not change much in her time and she was often slighted from promotions, pay raises, and dealt with heavy competition and jealousy from male peers; which caused her much distress. She was recruited as a Chief Yeoman and started with a pay of $1400/annum. This was in the middle of World War I and almost immediately she was transferred to Washington D.C. to work in the Code and Signal Section of the Director of Naval Communications.
Her time in the Navy started out as a short period of a couple of years. She was discharged and then went back to work as a civilian but quickly left for what seemed like a promising future in the small business world. After solving a puzzle (noted as being unsolvable), in a contest put together by Edward H. Hebern, she was asked to work at his company Hebern Electric Company, at their offices in D.C. as a Technical Advisor. This was to be a small stint as the company fell apart due to issues with finances. It would be 1924 when she returned to her post as a civilian in the Navy knowing that she was going to receive a 17.5% pay cut.
At this time she was working for Captain Laurance Safford, who was to become known as “the father of U.S. Navy Cryptology.” It was also a time when Japanese and Americans were engaged in stealing secrets from each other, known as “black-bag” jobs. Soon she would be put on the task of breaking the codes from something known as “The Red Book.” It would take her three years before she was able to accomplish this. In the meantime she was training junior officers on the art of cryptology. This is about the time when her nicknames began to be formed by the men and she would be known as Madame X or Miss Aggie.
Agnes was a very refined woman, seen by colleagues as being tall and patrician, she was only about 5’ 5” which is an average height for women today, though it was tall for a woman at that time. It is mentioned that probably because she was in a “man’s world,” she was known to “curse like a sailor.” This certainly would not fit her personality based on the way she was raised and what you can gleam from her personal life. She also wore no make-up to work as attractive women were said to be in the military to marry a sailor. She would however, go on to marry Michael “Brownie” Bernard Driscoll on August 12, 1925. Brownie, his nickname, was an Attorney for the Interstate Commerce Commission. He was known to be a sentimental person who wrote poems for his wife. Brownie and Agnes loved to travel and garden and they never had children. They were close to her family and she enjoyed analyzing her nieces and nephews when they were at play, trying to determine a deeper meaning in this. She would have made a great play therapist, no doubt. The two of them loved to enter contests and gamble and Agnes was a great chess player. Her sister Margaret Eliza Hamilton, was eight years her junior. She had enlisted in the Navy during World War I as well and would end up working with her sister in the Code and Signal Section.
By 1930 the Japanese had realized the U.S. was onto their codes and so they established a new code which would come to be known as “The Blue Book.” This lasted until 1938 and then it became “The Black Book,” in two parts. However, around 1937 Agnes was in a terrible automobile accident. The driver of the faulty car would see two fatalities. Agnes had about four people in her own car but she apparently suffered the worst. She had two broken jaws and a leg that was never properly fixed so that she suffered pain and walked with a cane the rest of her life. In the video above, you can see a photo of her with her mother and what her leg looked like. Evidently she was too afraid of the surgery, which would require re-breaking the bone and probably not as nicely as the way it would be managed today with modern technology. However, this injury was known to have changed her personality quite substantially. Though the debate from her colleagues as to whether or not this was the case varies according to favoritism. At this time, she was accomplishing a great many things for the Navy meanwhile watching her peers surpass her in pay and rank. She wasn’t too happy about this.
After the accident, it would appear she had hit her peak and upon returning from her convalescence began to go on the decline in her job. It does appear though that she would be set up to fail by her colleagues, from what was written. Around this time Pearl Harbor would be attacked, to no surprise to Agnes or to U.S. Naval Intelligence (though I found it interesting to read this). Nonetheless she would be shifted to other things at this point and was no longer involved with Japanese intelligence. She would be involved with a German naval system called Enigma, in which her work came to no avail. Partly, this had to do with the Navy refusing to work with the British who had already achieved success in decoding this system. Partly, it had taken awhile because Agnes’s methods for de-coding were behind the times and she refused to keep up with them. There were machines now to help with deciphering codes but Agnes preferred to work manually (and did so the rest of her career). It was however, her only way to find the answers that she trusted. Then she was put on a project called Coral and a colleague by the name of Frank Raven, was successful at thwarting her accomplishments by sabotaging them. He was backed by people within. Agnes at this point had enemies and her cheerleaders were losing strength as they were retiring or deceased.
In 1949, toward the end of her career, she was transferred to the newly formed Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA). It appears that she was at this point merely patronized on the job. The officers in charge had no respect for people who did not go to war directly, so she was given tasks to keep her busy during the day. From 1952-1959 she became a consultant for the NSA (National Security Administration) that was formed by the top people in the field. Agnes was still very stubborn in the way she did her work and was using a magnifying glass to pore over pages of information that took much longer to do then the machines devised to speed up the process. She did finally retire in 1959 after her 70th birthday, though no mention of this was made in the NSA newsletter.
At the end of her life, she and Brownie continued to travel, sometimes with her mother, to New England, post-war Europe and Cuba (before Castro). Agnes was fond of collecting green stamps, which gave rewards (these were before you had cards to get discounts at stores). She and her husband kept to themselves and did not socialize much, outside of a few dinner parties. They did attend lectures on astronomy and anthropology. Her mother Lucy would go on to live to be 100 years old and died in 1964. Within the same year her husband Brownie died three days before his 74th birthday. Her family noted that she was very stoic about this but stated that this was just her nature. She was known to them as an iron-willed woman.
Her sister’s stroke in 1969, which left her unable to talk until she died in 1980, would prove to be the toughest for Agnes to take. The two of them had worked together since World War I and had been close their entire lives. Agnes shared a floor at the same nursing home and would come to her death at the age of 82, in 1971. She and her husband’s bodies are interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
The reason for there being a lack of information about Agnes is that she did not keep a diary or journal. Much of what the author was able to deduce for his paper came from military archives and journals written by her peers, which happened to mention her but gave biased details about her personality. She herself is a bit of an enigma.
**The above (and below) photos are from the ceremony on July 22, 2017, honoring her with a plaque in front of the library (and her home).