Denied By The Nazis, 102-Year-Old Becomes World's Oldest PhD Recipient

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport at her PhD award ceremony at the University of Hamburg. BBC News.

German-Jewish Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport (nee Syllm) has become the world’s oldest person to receive a doctorate degree, at the age of 102 years old, almost 80 years after the Nazis prevented her from sitting her final exam.

Honored by the University of Hamburg’s teaching hospital on June 9, pediatric specialist Syllm-Rapoport was presented with her PhD, even though she completed her thesis on diphtheria in 1938.

"It was about the principle," said Syllm-Rapoport to Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. "I didn't want to defend my thesis for my own sake. After all, at the age of 102 all of this wasn't exactly easy for me. I did it for the victims [of the Nazis]."

Professors from the University of Hamburg traveled to Syllm-Rapoport’s house in East Berlin to test her knowledge of her work. However, the original thesis was lost to time.

To prepare for the exam, Syllm-Rapoport’s friends helped her to utilize the Internet to thoroughly examine developments in diphtheria research from the past 80 years. After impressing the Hamburg committee in her living room, a special ceremony took place at the University of Hamburg, finally rewarding Syllm-Rapoport’s academic efforts.


Syllm-Rapoport with her PhD at the award ceremony at the University of Hamburg. BBC News.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the idea to complete the doctorate she was denied by the Nazis only came to Syllm-Rapoport this year.

At age 25, five years after Adolf Hitler became Reich Chancellor of Germany, Syllm-Rapoport completed her doctoral dissertation on diphtheria at the University of Hamburg. The disease was an epidemical cause of death for children in Europe and the United States at the time.

Her professor highly commended her research. However, he was a member of the Nazi party and she had a Jewish mother. So he banned Syllm-Rapoport from sitting her last oral exam, preventing her from completing and receiving her PhD.

Though Syllm-Rapoport had been raised as a Protestant, the academic authorities were allowed to cite “racial reasons” for the ban, which denied her entry to the exam at the time.

Later, Syllm-Rapoport emigrated from Germany to the US, where she met her now-husband Mitja Rapoport in 1938. Returning to East Berlin with her family, Syllm-Rapoport qualified as a pediatrician and as a professor. In 1973, she retired but continued to work as a scientist well into her eighties.

"The university wanted to correct an injustice," said Syllm-Rapoport. "They were very patient with me. And for that I'm grateful."

The previous holder of the title of world’s oldest person to receive a doctorate was war veteran Michael Cobb, accepting his doctorate in philosophy in 2008 from the University of Cambridge at age 91.

Soon to be an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, Ingleborg Syllm-Rapoport is proof that you’re never too old to study.

[H/T BBC News]

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