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102-Year-Old is Oldest Person to Receive Doctorate

102-Year-Old is Oldest Person to Receive Doctorate

Dr Ingeborg Rapoport from Germany has become the oldest person in the world to have received her doctorate, at the grand old age of 102.

This, in itself, is amazing news, but how this story came to be might be even more incredible.

Ingeborg should have received her PhD almost 80 years ago – when she was still Ingeborg Syllm and finishing her medical studies at the University of Hamburg in 1938. Her doctoral thesis was on diphtheria, a very serious problem in Germany at the time. All she had left to do is sit her final oral exam.

But diphtheria wasn’t the only thing causing turbulence for the German people. Nazi oppression and anti-Semitic laws were rife, and Ingeborg’s mother was Jewish. Despite being raised as a Protestant, a letter from the university confirmed that her doctorate, sadly, wasn’t on the cards.

As the country become more and more of a dangerous place for Jewish people and their families, Ingeborg left for the US. Here, she re-enrolled at university and was finally able to qualify as a doctor.

With a few years, Ingeborg met and married biochemist Dr Samuel Mitja Rapoport. Samuel had had his own troubled past as a Jewish refugee from Austria, and would go own to have his own prestigious career.

Ingeborg started working as a paediatrician in the US, specialising in neonatology – newborns – and progressed to become head of the paediatric department.

In 1950, the war over, the couple returned to Europe, first to Austria, and then back to Germany, returning to their careers and having four children along the way.

Obviously not one to be held back, and now a Professor of Paediatrics, Ingeborg became Europe’s first chair in neonatal medicine, the highest possible academic rank for her field. She was even awarded a national prize for her work, which helped to dramatically reduce the infant mortality rate in Germany, and she established the first neonatology clinic in the country.

But despite all of her life’s achievement, Ingeborg still hadn’t received her doctorate from Hamburg University. That is, until the university realised there was a wrong that still needed righting.

Last month, three professors from the university’s medical faculty travelled to Berlin, where Ingeborg lives now. Their goal was to assess her knowledge on her thesis on diphtheria from all that time ago.

Dr Burkard Göke, Hamburg University’s Hospital Medical Director, said that while the university can’t undo any injustices committed, insights into the past could help shape their perspective for the future. “After 80 years, it was possible to restore some extent of justice,” he explained.

Although Ingeborg was highly educated on the subject of diphtheria, there have been a lot of developments in the field over the last 70 years or so, as you can imagine. So Ingeborg enlisted the help of her friend to research these advancements online, and hopefully impress the professors.

It was evident that the amount of time since being a medical professional hadn’t affected the depth of her knowledge, and it certainly showed.

“We were impressed with her intellectual alertness and left speechless by her expertise, also with regard to modern medicine,” exclaimed Prof Dr Uwe Koch-Gromus, Dean of the university’s medical faculty.

Ingeborg travelled to the university’s medical centre for the special ceremony she should have been able to attend all those years ago. And here, she finally received her PhD, concluding her studies with an overall grade of magna cum laude – with great distinction.

But Ingeborg was very clear on the matter of why she decided to go through with all this so late in life.

“It was about the principle,” she said. “I did not want to defend my thesis for my own sake. After all, at the age of 102, all of this wasn’t exactly easy for me – I did it for the victims.”

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