Pioneering codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman, a poet and mother of two, smashed spy rings by solving secret messages

Simon Worrall in National Geographic:

ScreenHunter_2857 Oct. 12 20.07British codebreaker Alan Turning had a movie, The Imitation Game, made out of his life—and Benedict Cumberbatch to play him. The great American codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman hasn’t been so lucky. Although she put gangsters behind bars and smashed Nazi spy rings in South America, Friedman’s name has been forgotten. Her work remained classified for decades, and others took credit for her achievements. (Find out what secret weapon Britain used against the Nazis.)

Jason Fagone rescues this extraordinary woman’s life and work from oblivion in his new book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes. When National Geographic caught up with Fagone by phone, he explained how Friedman, like Alan Turing, broke the Enigma codes to expose a notorious Nazi spy, how J. Edgar Hoover rewrote history to sideline her achievements, and how the cryptology methods that she and her husband, William Friedman, developed became the foundation for the work of the National Security Agency (NSA). (Go inside the daring mission that stopped a Nazi atomic bomb.)

Elizebeth Friedman is probably not a name familiar to most of our readers. Introduce us to this remarkable woman—and explain what drew you to her.

Well, it’s an amazing American story. A hundred years ago, a young woman in her early twenties became one of the greatest codebreakers America had ever seen. She taught herself how to solve secret messages without knowing the key. That’s codebreaking. And she started from absolutely nothing.

She wasn't a mathematician. She was a poet. But she turned out to be a genius at solving these very difficult puzzles, and her solutions changed the 20th century. She caught gangsters and organized-crime kingpins during Prohibition. She hunted Nazi spies during World War II.

She also helped to invent the modern science of secret writing—cryptology—that lies at the base of everything from government institutions like the NSA to the fluctuations of our daily online lives. Not bad for a Quaker girl from a small Indiana town!

More here.