The Oldest Ph.D.

It typically takes a long time to get one’s Ph.D. First, there’s kindergarten (and hopefully some pre-K before that), then twelve years of grammar school. Then you have four years of college — and then, the real work starts. On average, the typically American doctorate takes at least six years of post-graduate study, according to U.S. News and World Report. That’s at least 23 years of schooling, starting at age 5, so you’re already pushing 30 by the time you finish. It’s not for everyone.

And it’s also not something you probably want to tackle later in life. By and large, most Ph.D. candidates who succeed in obtaining their doctorate do so before age 35. It’s rare for people over the age of 45 to earn that degree, and it only gets less likely as you get even older. Time just isn’t on your side. 

But for Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport, that didn’t matter. In 1938, at age 25, she submitted her thesis on diphtheria and got ready to defend it. And ultimately, she succeeded in that defense. It just took her until she was 102.

Her excuse?

The Nazis.

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport was born in Cameroon in 1912, which at the time was a German colony. Her parents, both practicing Protestants, relocated to Hamburg, Germany, soon after her birth, and she grew up living a generally normal life for a young girl in Germany at the time. She defied gender norms at the time and not only went to college but also attended the equivalent of medical school at the University of Hamburg. She continued her studies, focusing on diphtheria, a bacterial infection that proved fatal to tends of thousands of children. Her aim was a Ph.D., but when it became time to finish the process, a problem emerged. Her mother’s parents were Jewish.

In 1935, as a precursor to the Holocaust, Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws, which among other things, codified discrimination into the nation’s legal system. In order to discriminate against Jews, Germany needed to define who was Jewish, and many who did not consider themselves to be Jews were also targeted by the law. Syllm-Rapoport’s mother’s parents were Jewish; as a result, she was considered to be a “Mischling” (basically, “mixed”) and not truly Aryan. 

For Syllm-Rapoport, this put a halt to her studies — or, at least, to any advancement she would have otherwise earned. According to the Guardian, “when Syllm-Rapoport handed in her doctorate thesis, her supervisor at the time, Professor Rudolf Degkwitz, wrote in a letter in 1938 that he would have accepted her work on diphtheria if it had not been for the Nazis’ race laws which, he said, ‘make it impossible to allow Miss Syllm’s admission for the doctorate.'” Unable to obtain a degree, she left Germany for America.

There, she met her future husband — an Austrian-born Jewish pediatrician — and earned herself an M.D. at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She practiced medicine for years, first in the United States and then in East Germany; she and her husband moved back to Germany in 1952 after her husband was investigated by the House unAmerican Activities Commission for espousing views in support of socialism.

In 2011 or 2012, any hopes of Syllm-Rapoport getting the Ph.D. she had earned seemed unlikely, to say the least. But despite the fact that more than a half-century had passed, not everyone had given up. Her son Tom — himself a Harvard Medical School professor — contacted the dean of the University of Hamburg to tell him about his mother’s story. That dean, Dr. Uwe Koch-Gromus, was compelled to right the wrong. And that meant Ingeborg had to get studying. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “neither Dr. Koch-Gromus nor Ms. Rapoport was content to plaster over the injustice with an honorary doctorate; instead, he devised a legal pathway for her to qualify for the real one she was denied, and Ms. Rapoport started boning up.”

Despite poor vision that prevented her from reading from a computer screen, Syllm-Rapoport was able to not only refresh her memory from her studies from decades prior, but she managed to get up to speed on more modern issues surrounding diphtheria as well. She passed her defense with flying colors; Dr. Koch-Gromus told the Guardian “we were impressed with her intellectual alertness, and left speechless by her expertise – also with regard to modern medicine.” And in 2015, at age 102, Syllm-Rapoport became the world’s oldest newly-minted Ph.D., graduating magna cum laude

Bonus fact: James Doohan, best known for playing Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott on Star Trek, didn’t have a doctorate degree despite his obvious success at portraying a graduate from Starfleet Academy. Doohan did, however, have an honorary doctorate to his credit. In 1993, the Milwaukee School of Engineering awarded him with one due to his contributions aboard the Enterprise. No, the school didn’t suddenly believe that warp speed or transparent aluminum was on the cusp of human innovation; the university was simply grateful for Doohan’s work in inspiring a generation of would-be Scottys. According to the BBC, “half the students there said that Scotty had inspired them to take up the subject.”

From the Archives: Alaska’s Super Hero Dogs: Meet the dogs that brought the diphtheria vaccine to remote areas of Alaska.