German woman, 102, gets doctorate – 77 years after Nazis stopped her first attempt

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport was refused into her oral exam in Hamburg in 1938 because she was Jewish

Jessica Ware
Saturday 16 May 2015 15:38
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A German woman has officially passed her doctorate aged 102, after the Nazi government refused to let her sit her final exams the first time round.

Neonatal expert Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport became probably the oldest person in the world to get their PhD, after the University of Hamburg awarded her the title on Wednesday – 77 years after finishing her thesis.

Dr Rapoport was born in Berlin to a Jewish mother, famous pianist Maria Syllm. She finished her doctoral thesis in 1938 on diphtheria but because her university was under Nazi influence at the time, she was refused entry to her final oral exam.

“This is about principle, not about me,” she told the Tagesspiegel newspaper in an interview, adding that her examiners were “tolerant but also satisfied” with her performance.

“The university wanted to put right past wrongs and have demonstrated great patience, for which I am thankful,” said Dr Rapoport.

She emigrated to the US shortly after she finished her thesis with her husband fearing the increasingly powerful Nazi government.

But the transition was not an easy one as she did not have the piece of paper to prove she was a doctor. “My final exams [from Germany] carried no weight so I had to study there for two more year, I had to overcome a lot of hurdles,” she said.

“I hadn’t anticipated what it would have meant not getting my title,” she said, explaining that her professor filled a certificate out to say that he would have passed her were it legally possible.

Ms Rapoport eventually moved back to Germany – becoming a highly respected professor of neonatology at the Charité hospital.

She still lives there, and has a network of friends who had helped her brush up for her exam by helping her Google medical advances in diphtheria over the past 80 years. The disease was a huge problem when she was a student.

The Nazi presence in the German university system was a well-known one and even after the war ended it took years for their influence to trickle out.

“With this belated graduation we cannot make up for the injustice that has already occurred but we can contribute to working through the darkest sides of German history at universities,” Dr Uwe Koch-Gromus told the DPA news agency.

Dr Rapoport will be given her certificate at a ceremony on June 2. "I've never been so happy," she said.

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