Elizebeth Friedman

by Sonakshi Bhalla from San Diego, California in United States

In Robin Rosenberg’s essay for the Smithsonian magazine, he states that heroes “choose altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power” (“The Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories”). They selflessly act out of the pure desire to help others. However, in today’s society, many of our so-called heroes act not from a sense of altruism, but from a desire for fame, money, and power. Young people, especially, are drawn to hero figures as they seek role models during their maturing years. Thus, it is vital that we choose our heroes wisely. But how do we recognize a true hero? Personally, I believe that a hero can be an ordinary person of extraordinary commitment to service. A hero could be a doctor who sacrifices time and comfort to help the forgotten of a foreign country, a teen who stands up to a bully, or even a single parent working two jobs for the sake of a family. Heroism means putting others first and never giving up even if the cost may be greater than the reward. Even if a hero affects only one person, all that matters is their drive to improve the world. These individuals are set apart from the rest of humanity through their persistence and drive, even when others have given up. A worthy hero makes a positive impact upon society through their altruistic dedication and determination to make the world a better place using their unique gifts.

133917Elizebeth and her husband WilliamExhibit in the National Cryptologic Museum, Fort Meade, Maryland, USA.One such person who embodies these heroic characteristics of applying their talents to change the world through persistence, dedication, and self-sacrifice is Elizebeth Friedman, the first female cryptologist who became an inspiration to women all over the world. She was born on August 26, 1982 in Huntington, Indiana, to wealthy Quaker parents. From a young age, she exhibited a high intellect and strong determination; she even paid for her own college tuition because her parents refused to let her go. After graduating in 1916, she met Colonel Fabyan, an eccentric millionaire, who convinced her to work for him at his Riverbank estate. That was where Friedman was first introduced to cryptography. After realizing she had a future as a codebreaker, she and her husband William moved to Washington so Friedman could work as an official cryptographer for the US government. Friedman’s career made a lasting impact on thousands of lives. With only a pen and a piece of paper, she broke innumerable codes over the course of many wars and took down spy rings, terrorist organizations, and even gangster networks. She later retired to study Shakespeare and died in 1980 when she was 88 years old. Throughout her life, Friedman always used her genius to save lives and benefit the world. She gave up the prospect of a safe life and career to look for something more meaningful so that she could shape society with her mind. Furthermore, Friedman stayed determined to succeed even when faced with the most challenging of obstacles; no matter how impossible it seemed, she never gave up. Because of Elizebeth Friedman’s altruistic application of her intelligence to revolutionize the world and her perseverance in the face of perplexing obstacles, she embodies the selfless nature of a true hero and deserves to be recognized as one.

133916Elizebeth FriedmanNSA website {{PD-USGov}}Blessed with the gift of extraordinary intelligence, Elizebeth Friedman selflessly applied it to fight the evil force of war and transform society for the better. During World War 2, she worked on the notorious Enigma codes and destroyed Nazi spy rings. One of the most dangerous spies she worked against was a man nicknamed “Sargo”: “The FBI considered Becker the most dangerous Nazi spy in the Western Hemisphere. He directed more than 50 agents from a base in Argentina, exchanging thousands of sensitive espionage reports with Germany, gathering information on U.S. and British military capabilities and instigating military coups in South American countries to swing governments toward the Nazis. Elizebeth’s efforts led to the destruction of every Nazi spy network in South America, in particular the one run by Sargo” (“This Woman Saved the Americas From the Nazis.”). Using her remarkable mind, Friedman took down some of the most prominent spies of the war. She did not use her gift for selfish incentives, but rather utilized it to stop the war and, in turn, save thousands of lives. Her motive was not recognition, fame, or wealth; she had the drive to improve humanity and make an impact on the world using her personal skills. She sacrificed her time and the prospect of a safe career to devote her life to codebreaking, which illustrates her altruistic nature. Furthermore, Friedman’s selfless contributions to society are shown in today’s modern technology, "...because her legacy is embedded in our lives today, in our smartphones and web browsers, in the science that powers secure-messaging apps used by billions, in the clandestine procedures of corporations and intelligence agencies and in the mundane software loaded onto the iPhones in our pockets" (Fagone 568). Just using a pencil, a piece of paper, and her mind, Friedman completely revolutionized cryptography and changed the world. Without her techniques, our lives would have been vastly different today. But her intelligence is not what makes her a hero; rather, it was her drive to advance academic society and use of her talents to shape the world. She recognized that the cryptographic procedures at that time were insufficient and altruistically used her gifts to better technology. Through her charitable utilization of her talents to benefit humanity, she embodies the nature of a true hero.

Friedman encountered challenging personal obstacles, but surmounted them with her constant persistence. Because she was from a wealthy family and her only expected destiny was to marry and have children, her father did not believe she should have a higher education and refused to pay for her tuition. However, she was determined to get educated and make an impact with her career. In fact, in his book, Fagone says she had “...determination and energy to get a college education with no help or encouragement from her father” (Fagone 33). Friedman did whatever it took to achieve her goals, including paying for her own college expenses. She knew that obtaining a college degree would aid her later in life, and she did not let anyone stop her from that, even her family. She did not listen to what society thought and paved her own path in life by having the endurance and grit to face and overcome obstacles. This was an essential part of her codebreaking success and the reason she saved innumerable lives. Without this drive, our world would be different today. Like a true hero, she held steadfast in her beliefs and aspirations, regardless of societal and familial pressures. In addition, over the course of her career, she was presented with many complex, seemingly impossible codes, but always managed to push through and find a solution. One such example is detailed in an NSA article: “She complied and eventually testified in the trial of Gordon Lim and several other Chinese. Her solution to a complicated unknown Chinese enciphered code, in spite of her unfamiliarity with the language, was key to the successful convictions" (“Home.”). Despite not knowing Mandarin, Friedman cracked these codes. It was an incredibly arduous task, as breaking codes was difficult in English, but that difficulty tripled in another language. Many others in the same situation would have quit. But what elevated Friedman over other cryptographers was her determination and dedication to improve the welfare of others; she knew the importance of capturing the criminals and kept trying until she solved it. The lack of knowledge that comes with dealing with a foreign language did not curb her passion and desire to succeed. She was persistent and tenacious in everything she did--a trait that led to her saving so many lives and making so many breakthroughs. Like a true hero, Elizebeth Friedman always had the selfless drive to persevere and push through hardships.

Friedman’s constant persistence when faced with struggles and her selfless, innovative use of her natural intelligence to create entirely new cryptographic techniques proves that she is a true hero and an inspiration for our modern society. She applied her gifts to advance technological society and improve the lives of thousands all over the world. Her altruistic motivation combined with her extreme determination enabled her to confront complex problems head on. Because she worked in a male-dominated field, she was also the target of discriminating sexism. As she once said, “By the end of the war I was more or less known as a military cipher expert, but I was better known as the wife of my husband” (Fagone 115). Despite her impressive contributions to the field of cryptography, people recognized her less for her achievements and more for her stereotypical role as a wife. In spite of this, she relentlessly continued to crack codes and develop new cryptographic techniques that could benefit world peace. This was an inspiration to the working women of that time because she was an example of a woman in the workforce at the top of her field. She demonstrated to women that they have a valuable contribution to make to society and should not let social mores prevent them from pursuing their passions or exercising their talents.

For the past two years, I have made some attempts to put me further on the path toward my dream of a medical career as a doctor. I have been volunteering at the San Diego Blood Bank and joined HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America). At times I have been tempted to quit due to the comments of so many adults who claim (and justifiably so) that I will be committing a great part of my young adult years mired in medical courses where women have to work three times harder to prove themselves in a field still dominated by men. It will take years of internship at extremely low pay and countless sleepless years before I can actively pursue my career. I have to admit that I have had my own doubts because of the unknown future and whether or not I will have the money to see my dreams through. And then I came across this book with the intriguing title The Woman Who Smashed Codes. The whole time I was reading about Elizebeth Friedman’s personal and social challenges in competing in the male-dominated field of codebreaking, I began to feel a kinship with her. If she could overcome an array of problems in her day and age, who am I at a time when women have come so far, to not pick up her torch and give everything I have to the cause of helping people. I have no illusions, after reading about Friedman’s life, that it will take courage, perseverance, and a strong sense of selflessness to achieve my ambitious goal, but more has been done by people with less. As her life illustrates, some of the greatest contributions to the world have come from the heroic choice of rejecting wealth and power in favor of altruistic dedication to better the lives of others, and her actions have motivated me to overcome the challenges needed to make a lasting impact on humanity.

                                                                                                 Works Cited                                                                                                      

Fagone, Jason. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: a True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. Dey Street Books, 2017.

“Home.” National Security Agency | Central Security Service,

“The Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories.”, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Feb. 2013,

“This Woman Saved the Americas From the Nazis.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 18 Oct. 2017,

Page created on 5/16/2019 2:21:21 AM

Last edited 5/21/2019 7:51:09 PM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Related Links

Elizebeth Smith Friedman Collection - This foundation is where all of her documents, pictures, archives, etc., are stored.
The Friedman Legacy: A Tribute to William and Elizebeth Friedman - This book includes some lectures given by her and her husband as well as some information about her life.