Joan Clarke: Mathematics is Not Just a Matter for Men

While we can see a shift as more and more women are entering mathematics, engineering, programming and other technical trades, there is still a male-dominated culture that hasn’t quite adapted to the influx of women. This is today, now imagine 1940’s Britain in the midst of World War II on a military base. This is where we meet, Joan Clarke. 

                                                                              Joan Clarke in the 1940's

From College to Coding

Born in Norwood, London in 1917, Joan Murray was the youngest of five children. She was super smart and won a scholarship to attend Newham College in Cambridge. However, at this time women were not allowed to achieve a full degree or be officially admitted to academia in Cambridge. Nonetheless, Joan completed the equivalent of a degree with honors in 1940, and won more prizes and another scholarship. That same year, she was recruited by Gordon Welchman, her Geometry supervisor and fellow code breaker, to enroll in the Government Code & Cipher School. 

Bletchley Park

She began work at Bletchley Park, the top-secret military base dedicated to breaking the “unbreakable” Nazi Enigma, their communication code. For the first few years, she worked in Hut 8 with a bunch of other women referred to as “the girls” where they would complete clerical and administrative tasks. Despite her intelligence and knack for mathematics, Joan Clarke kept her head down and worked hard for a mere 2 pounds a week. Eventually, she proved herself a valuable and successful decoder. She was made supervisor and even earned a raise. 

Joan with the Hut 8 Team


 As the war waged on, the urgency to break the Nazi Enigma increased, especially the naval code. Food supplies were running out in England as German U-boats continued to sink one after another. Clarke was able to become one of two female Banburists (a special code breaking method developed by Alan Turing) during this period. 

She Persisted

All in all, Joan Clarke stayed focused on her passion for applied mathematics and a higher mission to serve her country and save lives. Joan Clarke is a figure who was not overtly feminist. She did not participate in suffrage movements or women’s rights marches. Yet her humility, and her determination to apply her knowledge and skill in order to advance in a male-dominated career within a misogynistic culture is admirable. The odds and attitudes were stacked against her, yet she persisted.  

About the Design:

We first heard of Joan Clarke from the movie the Imitation Game, which largely centers on Alan Turing, a fellow code breaker at Bletchley Park. In the film, she gains access to the Government Code & Cipher School by completing a crossword puzzle that could only be completed by gifted minds. Although this is a creative liberty taken by the drama, we loved the concept of a crossword visually for a design. The phrase “I solve my own problems” is an ode to Joan’s determination to apply her passion for mathematics in order to help solve complex codes and math problems despite her circumstances. 


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