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Ingeborg Rapoport (née Syllm) was 25 when she wrote her doctoral thesis, but had to wait more than 75 years to get the degree. The now 102-year-old finally received the doctorate Tuesday that the Nazis denied her for being half Jewish, and the university in Germany she attended sought to right the past wrong.
Rapoport submitted her thesis on diphtheria, a disease that was then a leading cause of death among children, to the University of Hamburg in 1938. The retired neonatologist who currently lives in Berlin did not get to defend it until last week or receive her degree until today because her mother was Jewish.
The doctoral thesis was submitted five years after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany and the crackdown on non-Aryans had begun. While her professor praised her work, academic authorities citing “racial reasons,” deemed her ineligible for advancing academically and marked her exam forms with a telltale yellow stripe. While Rapoport was raised a Protestant, the Nazis considered her to be Jewish.
The University of Hamburg embraced the new Nazi order early on and was pushing out students and professors. The then dean called his campus “the first national-socialist institute of higher learning in the Reich.” Many who ran afoul of the Nazis would up in the death camps or in imprison, the fate her professor reportedly received for opposing Nazi actions like using euthanasia at a children’s hospital.
Rapoport fled to the U.S. in 1938. She applied to 48 American medical school and was accepted by and attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Working as a doctor in Cincinnati during the war, she met Samuel Mitja Rapoport, an Austrian-Jewish doctor and biochemist, whom she married in 1946. They had three children before her husband’s links to the Communist Party began to draw attention from, among others, the House Un-American Activities Committee. Feeling the heat, the family resettled in East Germany while Rapoport was pregnant with her fourth child.
The couple was successful in establishing thriving careers in East Germany. While her husband, who died in 2004, ran a biochemical institute, she founded a neonatology clinic at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. Their children grew up and established their own academic and medical careers, one of which led to today’s degree.
The couple’s son, Tom, is a professor at Harvard Medical School. He told a colleague, Dr. Uwe Koch-Gromus, who is the current dean at the University of Hamburg’s medical faculty about his mother’s history. The university wanted to award Rapoport an honorary degree. But she and Koch-Gromus felt that ignored the wrong done by the Nazis.
Her original paper on diphtheria could not be found. Denied the right to defend her original research, the centenarian started over and boned up on diphtheria and the past seven decades of research. With failing eyesight and a dearth of computer skills, family and friends had to help and read her the information, which she had to memorize. Last week, three professors drilled her on her knowledge and diphtheria research, and she earned the doctoral degree not given 77 years ago.
Today in Germany, the 102-Year-Old Rapoport, believed to be oldest doctoral recipient ever, was given the degree by the University of Hamburg, which finally rights the Nazis’ wrong. Rapoport said her effort was based on principle. She did not seek to defend her thesis for her own sake. “After all, at the age of 102 all of this wasn’t exactly easy for me.”Rapoport explained, “I did it for the victims [of the Nazis].”
By Dyanne Weiss
BBC: Germany’s oldest student, 102, gets PhD denied by Nazis
Globe and Mail: Part-Jewish neonatologist, 102, finally receives doctorate in Germany
Wall Street Journal: Ingeborg Rapoport to Become Oldest Recipient of Doctorate After Nazi Injustice is Righted