Elizebeth Smith Friedman was born in Huntington, Indiana, to a Quaker family in 1892. As a student of poetry and literature, Friedman was a highly devoted fan of Shakespeare.
A librarian at the city’s Newberry Library noticed her love for Shakespeare and helped to connect with George Fabyan, a millionaire looking for researchers to work on his pioneering Shakespeare code-cracking project.
During her time with George Fabyan, Friedman met the love of her life, William Friedman, and tied the knot. The two continued to work as codebreakers, and when the first world war broke out, they became the leaders of the first code-breaking unit in the United States.
Friedman had never received professional training as a code-breaker, but she was exceptionally good at the process. She was capable of recognizing patterns and providing calculative hunches, which usually turned out to be correct.
Friedman continued to run the code-breaking unit for the next ten years, and she helped break up several prohibition-era smuggling rings. Because of her team, almost 650 criminal prosecutions were made, and she testified as a witness in 33 cases.
Friedman and her team successfully captured Chinese drug smugglers and a Japanese spy in Canada, which helped smooth down a diplomatic feud.
Friedman faced a lot of discrimination because of her gender. Even though she was just as good a code-breaker as her husband, or maybe even better, she was paid only half of what he received for the same kind of work.
What’s more, after Pearl Harbour in 1941, she was demoted by the Navy since women were not allowed to serve in the military back then fully.
Friedman achieved her greatest success in the 1940s when she and her team began eavesdropping on several German spies who discussed the wartime movement of Allied ships. However, the Nazis received a tip-off and reset all their codes in 1942, so Friedman could not eavesdrop any longer.
Friedman did not give up. She worked harder than ever, and she was able to break every single one of the Nazi codes by the end of 1942. Her efforts unraveled a team of Nazi-led informants who eventually sided with the Allies. Although Friedman never received her due for her work, she is recognized as a hero today.