A doctoral defense delayed by injustice—for 77 years

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We’ve heard of people taking a long time to get their Ph.D.s, but Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport surely holds the record. More than 8 decades elapsed between the time she entered graduate school studying diphtheria at the University of Hamburg in Germany and her successful thesis defense, the Wall Street Journal reports. It wasn’t her fault it took so long: She submitted her dissertation 77 years ago.

In 1938, then 25 years old and known by her maiden name, Ingeborg Syllm, the Protestant-raised, German-born researcher was forbidden by officials at the Nazi-dominated university to proceed with her defense for “racial reasons,” according to the article. The fact that her mother was Jewish made her a “first-degree crossbreed” and thus ineligible for an academic degree.

Determined to do what he could to mitigate this wrong, [Uwe] Koch-Gromus arranged Syllm-Rapoport’s long-delayed defense.

She became one of the thousands of scholars and researchers banished from German academe, which at the time included many of the world’s most prestigious research institutions, on account of Jewish ancestry or opposition to Nazi policies. Many of them ended up suffering or dying in concentration camps. Rudolf Degkwitz, Syllm’s professor, was imprisoned for objecting to euthanizing children, according to the Journal.

Syllm, however, was able to reach the United States and earn her medical degree from the old Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Eventually she married a fellow physician named Samuel Mitja Rapoport, had a family, and moved back to Germany in the 1950s, where she achieved prominence in neonatology.

Syllm-Rapoport, who is now 102 years old, might have remained just a doctor (if a very accomplished one) had not the present dean of the Hamburg medical school, Uwe Koch-Gromus, heard her story from a colleague of her son, Tom Rapoport, a Harvard cell biologist. Determined to do what he could to mitigate this wrong, Koch-Gromus arranged Syllm-Rapoport’s long-delayed defense. Despite failing eyesight, she brushed up on decades of developments in diphtheria research with the help of friends and the Internet. Koch-Gromus called the 45-minute oral exam given by him and two colleagues on 13 May in her Berlin living room “a very good test. Frau Rapoport has gathered notable knowledge about what’s happened since then. Particularly given her age, she was brilliant.”

At a ceremony on 9 June, Syllm-Rapoport will officially become an M.D.-Ph.D. and, without doubt, the oldest new graduate of this or any other academic year.

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