Madame X — Agnes Meyer Driscoll
Mrs. Agnes Meyer Driscoll has been called the “First Lady of Naval Cryptology.” In a truly remarkable career, she served the U.S. Government from June, 1918 through July, 1959. Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton, USN, described Mrs. Driscoll as “without peer as a cryptanalyst”.
Agnes May Meyer was born in Geneseo, Illinois on 24 July 1889, the daughter of Dr. Gustav Frederick Meyer and Lucy Andrews Shaw Meyer. She received an A.B. Degree from Ohio State University in 1911, where her main subjects were mathematics, physics, music and languages. It was unusual for a woman of her day to pursue subjects of this nature. After college, Miss Meyer moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she taught music and mathematics at two schools.
In 1918, Miss Meyer entered the Naval Reserve. She was able to enroll as a Chief Yeoman, predominantly because of her knowledge of stenography. In addition to other skills that she possessed, Miss Meyer was proficient in German, French, Latin and Japanese. She brought with her teaching experience abilities in language, statistics, mathematics, physics, engineering and clerical skills, and began what was to be a remarkable career as a pioneer cryptanalyst and cryptographer. She was discharged on 5 February 1920. She was immediately hired as a civilian in the Office of the Director of Naval Communications; first as a stenographer and then as a clerk.
Although a Navy Department employee from 1920 until 1924, Miss Meyer worked for several cryptologic research laboratories. These included the Department of Ciphers at Riverbank Laboratories in Illinois, owned and overseen by millionaire George Fabyan. Fabyan paid her expenses and her salary, and the Navy gave its blessing to the venture. She also worked for a time at the New York offices of the “American Black Chamber”.
She showed remarkable aptitude for the cryptology field and after she returned to Washington she proved her skills by solving an “unbreakable” message enciphered using a new machine developed by Edward Hebern. Miss Meyer took a leave of absence to help Mr. Hebern evaluate his machine.
Mrs. Driscoll returned to the Navy Department in August, 1924, having married a Washington lawyer, Michael Bernard Driscoll. In 1920, the Office of Naval Intelligence had managed to break into the Japanese Consulate in New York City and to photograph all the pages of the Japanese fleet code book. This code book was known to the Americans as the “Red Book”.
When Mrs. Driscoll joined the Navy Research Desk (OP-20-G) in 1924, she assumed the responsibility of decoding the “Red Book.” Her work paid off in many ways, vastly increasing the United States’ knowledge of Japanese naval maneuvers, fuel supplies, and advances in naval aviation.
In the fall of 1931, the Japanese introduced a new code system that became known as the “Blue Book” — Mrs. Driscoll was the first to break this code. Among the valuable pieces of information learned was the speed of Japanese battleships. This information resulted in redesigning America’s new battleships.
In October 1937, Mrs. Driscoll was in a serious automobile accident that resulted in a one year recuperation period. Those who knew her well have frequently indicated that the accident greatly affected her personality and resulted in her later reclusive ways.
By June 1939, Japan was using a new code, JN-25, which was completely different from its earlier codes. Mrs. Driscoll realized that this new code was machine-generated and she developed a manual means of decoding it. She continued working for the Naval Security Group and later the National Security Agency, until her retirement in 1959 at age 70.
In 2000, Agnes Myer Driscoll was inducted in the National Security Agency Hall of Honor.
Agnes Meyer married Michael Bernard Driscoll in Washington, D.C. on August 12, 1925 when she was 36 years of age. “Brownie” had served in the U.S. Army at the rank of Captain with General Black-Jack Pershing in the Pancho Villa expedition of 1916 and in France during the First World War. Her husband died of a heart attack on 3 December 1971 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Mrs. Agnes Driscoll passed away on 16 September1964 in Fairfax, VA and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery (Section 35, Grave 4808) next to her husband.
Agnes Driscoll left a legacy of overall genius as one of the Navy’s first cryptologists and as the teacher of many pioneer officers. She was considered a character by some, a mystery by others, and a genius to the few who had known her at the height of her career.
- — , “AGNES MEYER DRISCOLL”, NCVA CRYPTOLOG, Vol. 42 No. 1 (Winter 2021): 12.
- Johnson, Kevin Wade. “The Neglected Giant: Agnes Meyer Driscoll”, National Security Agency, Center for Cryptologic History, 2015.
- Hanyok, Robert J. "Madame X: Agnes Meyer Driscoll and U.S. Naval Cryptology, 1919 – 1940", National Security Agency, Center for Cryptologic History, Cryptologic Almanac 50th Anniversary Series, 28 February 2003.