Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a woman does pioneering work in a field, only to have the men end up remembered by posterity. So it was for Elizebeth Smith Friedman. But she’s starting to receive her due. Jason Fagone’s newly-published The Woman Who Smashed Codes is not the first recognition of Friedman’s work, but it’s the most recent.

Friedman and her husband William rival the Curies as the most impressive scientific couple in history. Their careers would be impressive on their own, but it is the combination that makes them incredible. Starting out on a rich man’s compound trying to provide that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, they went on to essentially invent the field of cryptanalysis.

Fagone’s book is a biography, but with a narrow view. He spends little time on Elizebeth’s life prior to joining George Fabyan’s Riverbank Laboratories. Life after World War II is similarly viewed on fast forward. But the three decades in between are covered in depth.

The outbreak of World War I saved the Friedmans from work they were rapidly coming to doubt. Their work decoding enemy messages – and inventing the processes for doing so – changed their personal and professional trajectories and brought them into prominence. Between wars, Elizebeth cracked the messages of Prohibition runners. When war came again, the Coast Guard cryptanalysis unit she created worked to crack three variations of the Enigma machine and was responsible for tracking the extensive Nazi spy ring in Argentina.

Despite her incredible work, Elizebeth often took a backseat to William. She seemed to prefer it that way. The Friedmans each felt the other was the smarter and more talented of the pair. Fagone devotes little of the book to Elizebeth’s personal life, except for her relationship to William. Their mutual devotion and admiration are as inspiring as their work.

This is a thick book, but it reads much faster than you’d expect. I enjoyed reading it and came away with a deep admiration of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a person I hadn’t heard of just a few days ago.

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