World’s Longest PhD—102-Year-Old Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport Defends Thesis 77 Years after Nazis Blocked Her Oral Exam

Tom Rapport describes this picture of himself with his mother, Dr. Syllm-Rapoport, as "ancient." Photo courtesy Tom Rapport

Tom Rapport describes this picture of himself with his mother, Dr. Syllm-Rapoport, as “ancient.” Photo courtesy Tom Rapport

Righting a historical wrong, Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport will be awarded an earned doctorate June 9 by the Medical Faculty of Hamburg University in Germany, 77 years after the school’s Nazi provost refused to allow her to defend her submitted thesis on diphtheria, because of her mother’s Jewish heritage. The 102-year-old retired neonatologist is the mother of ASCB member and Harvard Medical School professor Tom Rapoport. Recently a colleague of Tom Rapoport’s told the family story to Uwe Koch-Gromus, dean of Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf, who resolved to find a way to give the long delayed exam, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Syllm-Rapoport fled to the United States in 1938 where she finally took her MD at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, now absorbed into Philadelphia’s Drexel University College of Medicine. As a medical resident in Cincinnati, she met and eventually married an Austrian-Jewish refugee, physician and biochemist Samuel Mitja Rapoport. Both were active members of the American Communist Party. Increasingly alarmed by the Red-hunting Cold War political atmosphere in the U.S., the Rapoports re-emigrated to what was then East Germany in 1950 with their children. Both had successful professional careers in Berlin, Samuel as the head of a biochemistry research institute until shortly before his death in 2004 and Ingeborg as one of the first in either Germany to specialize in neonatology. In 1995, their son Tom, by then a renowned cell biologist, moved to Harvard Medical School.

The gram-positive C. diphtheria bacterium—Dr. Syllm-Rapoport caught up the research between her 1938 thesis and her 2015 oral defense. Image CDC Dr. Theo Hawkins

The gram-positive C. diphtheria bacterium—Dr. Syllm-Rapoport caught up the research between her 1938 thesis and her 2015 oral defense. Image CDC Dr. Theo Hawkins

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport, the son-to-be MD-PhD. Photo courtesy of Tom Rapoport

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport, the soon-to-be MD-PhD. Photo courtesy of Tom Rapoport

In early May, Syllm-Rapoport defended her long-lost thesis in a 45-minute oral exam administered in her Berlin living room by Dean Koch-Gromus and two other faculty members. Unable to see well enough to read, Syllm-Rapoport prepared by listening to a team of family and friends reading aloud the scientific literature detailing advances in the understanding and treatment of diphtheria since 1938. She passed with flying colors, said Koch-Gromus. On June 9, Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport will become a PhD-MD.

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