“Ingeborg Rapoport was denied her PhD at the University of Hamburg in 1938 for “racial reasons” due to her Jewish heritage. Last week, the 102-year-old Rapoport at long last had the opportunity to defend her doctoral thesis on diphtheria before an academic committee – 77 years after she completed it. After she aced her oral exam, her PhD was approved and the degree will be awarded to her in a ceremony next month in Hamburg. When this Nazi injustice from decades ago is finally righted, Rapoport will become the oldest person in the world to ever receive a doctoral degree.
Rapoport was 25 years old when she submitted her thesis on diphtheria, an infectious disease that was a leading cause of death among children at the time. Her professor praised her work but, as Rapoport told The Wall Street Journal, “I was told I wasn’t permitted to take the oral examination.” Although she was raised as a Protestant, Rapoport’s mother was Jewish which, according to the Nazis, made her “a first-degree crossbreed” and ineligible for academic advancement. “My medical existence was turned to rubble,” she recalled. “It was a shame for science and a shame for Germany.“
That year, she emigrated penniless to the US where she did several internships at hospitals and eventually received her M.D. from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. After working for several years in the US and starting a family, she returned to Europe and founded the first neonatology clinic in Germany at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. Reflecting on her journey, she said, “I have never felt bitterness. I’ve been shockingly lucky in all this. For me it all came out well: I had my best teachers in the U.S., I found my husband, I had my children.” But in recent months, she began to wonder about the possibility of receiving her long-denied degree.
A Hamburg colleague of her son learned about her story and presented her case to the current dean of the medical school, Dr. Uwe Koch-Gromus. Koch-Gromus was determined that Rapoport should complete her degree – and that she should earn it, not be granted an honorary Ph.D., even though the university’s legal department said that was the simplest solution. Koch-Gromus arranged for Rapoport to do an oral examination on diphtheria, the subject of her original paper, and she began studying up on the past 70 years of diphtheria research. After her exam, Koch-Gromus said, “Frau Rapoport has gathered notable knowledge about what’s happened since then. Particularly given her age, she was brilliant.”
Rapoport will receive her doctorate at a ceremony in Hamburg on June 9, and in doing so will set a new world record for the oldest person to receive a PhD. Rapoport is thrilled to be receiving her degree at long last and pleased that the university is striving to amend this injustice. Koch-Gramus, she said, “has made a great effort to show that things are now different in Germany.” Most importantly to Rapoport, however, is the chance to reflect on the circumstances that preventing her from receiving her degrees decades ago: “I am happy and proud, but this is not about me. This is in commemoration of those who did not make it this far.”
To read more about Rapoport’s life in The Wall Street Journal, visit http://on.wsj.com/1QLE3Oz
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