Ingebord Rapoport – oldest recipient of a PhD

The three years I spent studying for a PhD were the toughest of my life. If, at the end of it, someone had told me that I couldn’t do the oral examination necessary to gain my degree, I’d have been devastated. But not only did this happen to Ingebord Rapoport, she also had to wait 77 years to gain her doctorate.

Ingebord Syllm was born in 1912 to Protestant German parents in Cameroon, a German colony at the time. She was raised in Hamburg and later studied medicine at the University of Hamburg. She passed the state examination as a physician in 1937 and the following year, at the age of 25, submitted her doctoral thesis on diphtheria, then a leading cause of death among children. Her professor praised her work and approved the submission, but she was not permitted to take her oral exam for ‘racial reasons’ – her mother had Jewish ancestry. Nazi officials marked her exam forms with a yellow stripe, which meant she was ineligible for academic advancement.

Ingebord escaped, alone and penniless, to the US, where she applied to forty-eight colleges to complete her medical studies. Only one, the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, accepted her. But at this point, her fortunes changed. She was offered a job in Cincinnati, where she met Austrian-Jewish physician Samuel Rapoport, and married him two years later. They had three children in quick succession, and both their careers flourished. Unfortunately their growing support for the Communist Party gained the attention of the Un-American Activities Committee and, once more, Ingebord was forced to flee. They moved first to Zurich then to East Germany, where Samuel founded a biochemical institute and Ingebord founded the first neonatology clinic in Germany, where, together with their children, they achieved considerable academic success. Ingebord was honoured for her work in reducing infant mortality.

Ingebord was happy in her work, and ultimately gained qualifications higher than a doctorate, but never forgot the injustice that had been inflicted on her. Last year, her son, by now a Harvard professor, told Ingebord’s story to the dean of the University of Hamburg, who pursued the story. The University of Hamburg’s legal department proposed an honorary degree but the dean felt this wasn’t an unsatisfactory solution and proposed she took an oral exam. By now, Ingebord’s eyesight was too poor to enable her to read or use a computer so she instructed friends to search online for advances in diphtheria in the last seven decades and report them to her over the phone. Earlier this year, the dean and two other professors grilled the 102 year-old women in her living room for 45 minutes, describing her performance as brilliant, before granting her the PhD that was rightfully hers. In her acceptance speech, she stated that she’d gone to the effort of getting the degree for all of those who suffered from injustice during the Third Reich.