Ingeborg Rapoport finished writing her doctoral thesis at the tender young age of 25.
That was 77 years ago.
Now 102, Rapoport is finally poised to receive her PhD. She has waited a lifetime to defend her ideas. The reason why is as hauntingly simple as it is horrible.
Back in 1937, Rapoport was a graduate student at the University of Hamburg in northern Germany. Her specialty was diphtheria, a bacterial infection that was killing tens of thousands around the globe. For a year, she worked with sick patients at a local hospital. In 1938, she submitted her paper to her thesis adviser, Rudolf Degkwitz. The professor praised her work, and on Aug. 30, 1938, he approved it.
But there was a problem.
“I was told I wasn’t permitted to take the oral examination,” Rapoport recalled to the Wall Street Journal.
The reason was “racial,” academic authorities in Berlin told her. Rapoport had been raised Protestant but her mother was Jewish. In the eyes of the increasingly radical Nazi government, Rapoport (whose maiden name is Syllm) was “a first-degree crossbreed.” Her thesis paper was labeled with a yellow stripe, just as Jews would soon be forced to wear yellow stars on their sleeves. Her academic career was kaput.
“My medical existence was turned to rubble,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “It was a shame for science and a shame for Germany.”
Hamburg held out against Nazi influence longer than many German universities, but bowed all the same in the end. “Its professors were able to obstruct some of the external intrusion by the creation of new institutional forms, through which they appeared to conform to the demands of the government, but which were used to retain influence for themselves,” wrote historian Geoffrey J. Giles. “The weakness of the University was manifest in its incapacity to resist the law of the land.”
Many other Jewish or “non-Aryan” students were forced out of the university around the same time. Degkwitz, the professor who had vouched for Rapoport, was thrown into prison after expressing outrage over euthanasia at the university’s children’s hospital, according to the Wall Street Journal.
It was a harrowing time in Hamburg and the rest of the country for Jews. Ever since the Reichstag fire in 1933, Adolf Hitler had instituted anti-Jewish policies restricting their right to work, go to school and even marry non-Jews. Although Rapoport had no way of knowing it, Kristallnacht — the beginning of open attacks against Jews — and the Holocaust were on the horizon.
She slipped out of the country sometime in late 1938 and made her way to America, alone and poor. She applied to 48 medical schools, she told the Wall Street Journal, but was admitted to only one.
“I had great luck — and perhaps some tenacity,” she told the newspaper.
Rapoport was rewarded with some good fortune. She got a job as a doctor in Cincinnati, where she met an Austrian-Jewish physician named Samuel Rapoport. They married two years later and had three children.
But Rapoport’s ordeal wasn’t over. Her idyllic second life in the United States was disrupted by government suspicion over her and her husband’s sympathies with the Communist Party. Twelve years after fleeing Europe, Rapoport and her family moved back to Europe, settling in Zurich and then East Germany.
Back in Germany, the two Jewish doctors finally found lasting success. Her husband founded a biochemical institute. For her part, Rapoport founded the country’s first neonatology clinic.
Still, her incomplete doctorate nagged at her. Her husband passed away in 2004. It would be another decade before she would catch a break. But her son, Tom Rapoport, is a Harvard Medical School professor. And during a recent visit to the University of Hamburg, he happened to mention his mother’s story to the dean, who took up her cause. After much bureaucratic wrangling, Dean Uwe Koch-Gromus decided that the only way for Rapoport to receive her official doctorate was to defend her paper — 77 years after she had written it.
The world — and Rapoport — had changed remarkably. Diphtheria was no longer an epidemic. Rapoport was no longer a precocious 25-year-old. Faltering eyesight now prevented her from reading or using a computer. So she enlisted friends to research advances in diphtheria treatments on the Internet, and then call her with the information.
Earlier this month, Rapoport sat down in her Berlin living room with Koch-Gromus and two other professors, who grilled her for 45 minutes. Then they delivered their verdict: She had passed.
“It was a very good test,” Koch-Gromus told the Wall Street Journal. “Frau Rapoport has gathered notable knowledge about what’s happened since then. Particularly given her age, she was brilliant.”
“I know a lot more about diphtheria now than I did then,” Rapoport admitted. According to the Wall Street Journal, Rapoport’s (really) final exam makes her the oldest person ever to receive a doctoral degree, beating out a 97-year-old fellow German.
“This is about principle, not about me,” Rapoport told local paper Der Tagesspiegel. “The university wanted to put right past wrongs and have demonstrated great patience, for which I am thankful.”
Koch-Gromus said the centenarian had done more than prove a point. She had helped improve her country, the same one that had failed her so many years ago.
“With this belated graduation we cannot make up for the injustice that has already occurred but we can contribute to working through the darkest sides of German history at universities,” he told the DPA news agency. Rapoport will receive her PhD certificate during a June 9 ceremony in Hamburg.
“I’ve never been so happy,” she said.