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Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport wasn’t allowed to defend her doctoral thesis in 1938 under the Nazis because her mother was Jewish. Nearly eight decades later, she has became the world’s oldest recipient of a doctorate – at 102.
The neonatologist, a specialist in caring for newborns, cleared the final hurdle last month by passing an oral exam. She received her doctorate in a celebratory ceremony at the University of Hamburg on Tuesday.
“After almost 80 years, it was possible to restore some extent of justice,” Burkhard Göke, the medical director of the university’s hospital, said in his speech. “We cannot undo injustices that have been committed, but our insights into the past shape our perspective for the future.”
Syllm-Rapoport stressed in her acceptance speech that she went through all the efforts of getting the degree at her advanced age not for herself, but for all the others who suffered from injustice during the Third Reich, said Kerstin Graupner, a university spokeswoman.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, they gradually disenfranchised Jews, expelling them from universities, schools and many professions, before eventually deporting and killing them in death camps across Europe.
When Syllm-Rapoport handed in her doctorate thesis, her supervisor at the time, Prof Rudolf Degkwitz, wrote in a letter in 1938 that he would have accepted her work on diphtheria if it had not been for the Nazis’ race laws which, he said, “make it impossible to allow Miss Syllm’s admission for the doctorate”.
Syllm-Rapoport emigrated to the US in 1938 without a degree. After applying to several American universities, she eventually finished her degree in Philadelphia and worked as a paediatrician, before moving with her husband, a socialist like herself, to East Berlin in 1952. The mother of four was the first head of the neonatology department at Charité University Hospital in Berlin.
Asked about how Syllm-Rapoport did in her oral exam last month – which was on the topic of diphtheria, just like her original PhD thesis – Uwe Koch-Gromus, the dean of the University of Hamburg’s medical faculty, said: “She was brilliant, and not only for her age.
“We were impressed with her intellectual alertness, and left speechless by her expertise – also with regard to modern medicine,” he added.
Syllm-Rapoport concluded her studies with the overall grade of magna cum laude(with great distinction).
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