Anyone who has a doctorate will tell you just how long their research took them and how hard they worked. But only Ingeborg Rapoport could claim that she waited 77 years to receive her Ph.D.
Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection. It can be spread through direct contact, through the air, or via contaminated objects. It is possible for someone to carry the disease without any symptoms and still pass it onto other people.
In 1938, diphtheria was a leading cause of illness throughout Europe and America, and Ingeborg Rapoport, a German pediatrician, decided to do a thesis on it. But her important work was to be knocked back because of her heritage.
Ingeborg Rapoport was born Ingeborg Syllm in 1912 in Kribi, Cameroon, which was a German colony at the time. However, her parents Paul and Maria soon moved to Hamburg, Germany, and took Ingeborg with them. Her father was a businessman who held conservative and German nationalist beliefs. Although both her parents were Christians, her mother had Jewish ancestry. This had no impact on Ingeborg as a child since she was raised a Protestant, but it would be a crucial fact in later life.
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In 1937, Ingeborg passed the state exam to become a physician, having studied at the University of Hamburg. In 1938, she submitted her doctoral thesis on diphtheria to her supervisor, Rudolf Degkwitz. She was 25 years old, and Adolf Hitler was Chancellor of Germany.
In an interview with the British newspaper The Independent in 2015, Ingeborg spoke about “how her then professor praised her research and work on the illness… [but] although he was impressed, the one-time Nazi party member told Ms. Rapoport it was not enough and that she was not permitted to sit for her final oral exam.”
In essence, she had done all the research but was denied a final “viva voce” exam which was necessary for her to receive her doctorate. This is an oral exam where the student is invited to defend their research in front of relevant experts.
In the eyes of Nazi Germany, Ingeborg was a “mischling” – that is, someone who is deemed to have Aryan ancestry as well as Jewish ancestry. Hamburg University provided her with written confirmation that they would have accepted her doctorate “if the applicable laws did not prohibit Ms. Syllm’s admission to the doctoral exam due to her ancestry.”
This was a brutal blow for the young Ingeborg, but she didn’t let that get in the way of her career. In 1938, she moved to the United States of America and, after interning in various medical schools, she received an M.D. from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
After that, she went on to work in the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, eventually becoming head of the outpatients’ department. It was in the US that Ingeborg met her husband, Samuel Rapoport. In 1952, when her husband was offered the chair of Biochemistry at the Humboldt University in East Berlin, Ingeborg went with him, back to her homeland.
This move was also somewhat motivated by the fact that Ingeborg and her husband were under pressure for their left-wing views from the McCarthy anti-communist trials.
In East Germany, she continued working hard and gained one achievement after another. She became a co-founder of the Society of Perinatology (obstetricians who have specialist training in high-risk pregnancy care). She was also a council member of the European Society of Perinatology and became a member of a committee which had the aim of reducing infant mortality.
Before she retired in 1973, she had founded the first clinic of neonatology in Germany and been appointed as a Professor of neonatology at the Charite Hospital, East Berlin in 1969. After she’d been in retirement for more than 40 years, the University of Hamburg decided it was time to right an old wrong.
For most students, the viva voce can be a daunting prospect, and they are required to attend the relevant academics at the university. But in this instance, three medical experts from Hamburg University traveled out to see Ingeborg – in her sitting room. There, with drinks and snacks, they tested her on the work she had carried out in her twenties.
Ingeborg might have been a leader in the field, but she still enlisted the help of her friends to find out what discoveries and developments had been made in the field of diphtheria medicine since the 1930s. She was determined to do this right.
She passed her exam, and a special awards ceremony was held where she was finally presented with her doctorate from the University of Hamburg. She was 102 years old and the oldest person to ever receive a doctorate. A journalist from CBC Radio who attended the awards ceremony described Ingeborg as walking on stage “wearing sandals and socks, and walking with a stick” but added that she was undoubtedly “a centenarian rock star.”
To that very same journalist, Ingeborg explains “It was the idea of the university, it was not for my personal sake. I don’t need a doctor’s title anymore. I have better titles after that. So I didn’t care, but I did care for all the others who had a similar fate, probably much worse. Because I was lucky, they weren’t. For them I do it.”
Ingeborg Rapoport passed away on March 23, 2017 at age 104. Although the Ph.D award was effectively overshadowed by her later achievements, she understood the importance of accepting it – not for herself, but in recognition of all those people who suffered as she had done. As she so eloquently said: “For them I do it.”