Erma Kathryn Hughes Kirkpatrick was born in Washington, D.C., on 10 September 1920. She attended Woodrow Wilson High School and received a bachelor of arts degree in psychology from the University of Maryland in 1942. After graduation she worked for the U.S. Navy as a civilian cryptanalyst reconstructing Japanese coded messages.
In February 1943, Kirkpatrick joined the WAVES and completed an expedited basic training and officer candidate school at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She returned to Washington, D.C., where she resumed her position in naval intelligence unit. Kirkpatrick remained there for the duration of her service. She separated from active duty on 28 March 1946, but remained in the reserves until 11 January 1951.
Kirkpatrick attended business management classes at Radcliffe College after the war. She later married, raised a family, and did volunteer work with various organizations in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina area. In 2011 the governor of North Carolina presented to Kirkpatrick the prestigious Order of the Long Leaf Pine. She died on 1 June 2012 in Chapel Hill.