I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

If at first you don’t succeed …


A primary degree course is something that a lot of us simply slip into after leaving school. And then, having finished it by the time we are twenty-one or twenty-two, we wonder what to do next while waiting for times to improve ‑ they say my BA in English with Film is not one that employers find particularly attractive (now they tell me); perhaps then the MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture will do the trick.

And perhaps not, but this is all very harmless really. A BA and an MA take up only a few years, and what else would you be doing anyway? A PhD on the other hand constitutes a serious commitment to the academic life and one would surely be wise to ask at age twenty-three: “I may well commit myself to the academic life, but is it likely to commit to me?” A doctorate, which has been known to take five years, or seven, or more, is where it begins to get serious. It is, surely, not a path to be entered upon unadvisedly or lightly (but rather reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God).

There have certainly been many cases where students have given up in mid-stream, and for the most part they are unlikely to ever take the thing up again. Worse still is the case of having one’s thesis rejected after years of work, a shock from which many do not recover to pick up the pieces again. Except perhaps in exceptional circumstances.

Ingeborg Syllm was born in 1912 in Cameroon, then a German colony, to a businessman father and a musician mother who was of Jewish origin. Ingeborg was brought up in Hamburg and raised as a Protestant. After school she studied medicine, successfully completing her final exams in 1937. She took up employment as an assistant doctor at the Jewish Hospital in Hamburg, while simultaneously researching her doctoral thesis on diphtheria, a disease which then killed large numbers of children. She was prevented from presenting this thesis, however, by the Nazi regime on the grounds of her mother’s racial origins and in 1938 she emigrated to the United States, where n due course she qualified as a doctor for a second time. In 1946, at Cincinatti Children’s Hospital, she met her husband, the paediatrician Samuel Mitja Rapoport, an Austrian who was also a refugee from Nazism – and a communist.

While attending a conference on paediatric medicine in Switzerland in 1950, the Rapoports learned that they were about to be investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Samuel Rapoport decided that it would be best for him not to return to the United States, while Ingeborg, pregnant with their fourth child, returned quietly and brought the children to rendezvous with their father in Zurich. From there, the family went to Vienna, where Samuel worked at the Institute for Medical Chemistry. But finding his career progress stalled, perhaps as a result of American interventions, he eventually, in 1952, settled in East Berlin, where he was to establish the Institute for Physiological and Biological Chemistry. Ingeborg, meanwhile, specialised in paediatrics, and in particular in perinatal and neonatal medicine, working chiefly at the children’s clinic of the Charité hospital in Berlin, and from 1969 holding the chair of neonatal studies there.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ingeborg Rapoport began work on her memoirs, which were published in 1997. In 2004, Arte screened the television documentary The Rapoports – Our Three Lives, which won the prestigious Grimme-Preis in the following year. Samuel Rapoport died aged ninety-one in 2004. The widow Ingeborg’s thoughts began to turn to the thesis on diphtheria which she had finished in 1937 but had not been permitted to submit. Reconstituting it was not easy however, as she no longer had a copy of the original. “I tried to remember my method and to recover my principal conclusions. Friends dug out from Google for me all that had been done in the field of diphtheria in the last eighty years. The university showed a lot of patience, and I’m very grateful to them.”

On May 13th, Ingeborg Rapoport defended her doctoral thesis before three professors of the University of Hamburg, seventy-seven years after she had first tried to present it. At the age of 102, she became the oldest person to successfully present a Doctor of Philosophy thesis.

Photograph: Ingeborg Rapoport with a group of nurses in Cottbus, East Germany, in 1984

Sources: Le Monde, de.wikipedia.org