Professor passes degree denied by Nazis, aged 102

A 102-year-old has been awarded her doctoral degree in Hamburg. Paediatrician and professor of medicine Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport was denied her title under the Nazis because her mother was a Jew.

At an award ceremony held at the University Clinic of Hamburg-Eppendorf, Syllm-Rapoport said she was also collecting her title on behalf of all those who had been in a far worse situation than she had under the Nazi dictatorship. Having her certificate awarded was “an encouraging sign of a new, different, humanistic spirit at a German university”.

Syllm (her surname then) was working as a medical assistant at the Israelite Hospital of Hamburg when she wrote her doctoral thesis on diphtheria. After handing in her thesis in 1938, she was however denied admission to her oral examination. Under the racial laws, she was forbidden to complete her doctorate.

Her supervisor at the time, Rudolf Degkwitz, certified that he would have “accepted this thesis had not the laws in force ruled out admission to the doctoral exams for Fräulein Syllm because of her Jewish origin”.

Degkwitz himself was supporting oppositional groups and had spoken out against child euthanasia and one of its chief advocates, paediatrician Werner Catel, at the time. Later on, he was sentenced to seven years of penal servitude by the People’s Court.

Degkwitz managed to flee shortly before the end of the war, and the British military government put him in charge of Hamburg’s health authority. He also took up his work again as senior consultant at Eppendorf Paediatrics Clinic.

However, frustrated at the failure of denazification measures, Degkwitz emigrated to the United States in 1948, stating in a letter to Hamburg University Senate: “The former National Socialists, the disciples and advocates of Hitler’s gospel of violence, have been reinstated at the universities, the excuse being that they had merely been fellow travellers.”

Werner Catel, meanwhile, was appointed professor of paediatrics by the University of Kiel in 1954. In its obituary in 1981, the university praised Catel’s contributions to the welfare of children.


Syllm-Rapoport emigrated to the US in 1938 – without a doctorate. She was unable to find a paid position as a physician, although a grant enabled her to graduate as a medical doctor in 1942, as best student.

In 1944, she got to know her husband, Samuel Mitja Rapoport, a medical scientist and chemist. Rapoport’s research on blood conservation had helped save the lives of thousands of US soldiers during the war, and earned him a Certificate of Merit conferred by President Harry S Truman.

Both Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport and her husband joined the Communist Party, and Samuel Rapoport received a summons because of his activities, which he only learnt of when attending a conference in Switzerland. He never returned to the US.

Instead, the couple moved to Vienna with their children. However, US authorities there urged the city’s Institute of Medical Chemistry to refuse Rapoport’s appointment for professorship.

In 1951 the Humboldt University of Berlin offered him directorship of the Institute for Physiological Chemistry at the Charité University Clinic.

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport qualified there as a university lecturer. In 1968 she was appointed full professor, and she subsequently established the Charité’s neonatology department. In 1984, she received the National Award of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport sat her oral exams at Hamburg-Eppendorf University Clinic last May. Since she can hardly see and is now unable to read books or use computers, relatives and friends helped her prepare the defence of her thesis.

According to Faculty Dean Uwe Koch-Gromus, Syllm-Rapoport spoke freely and clearly, and even sharply criticised her own 77-year-old doctoral thesis. She also presented an impressive new approach to the diphtheria topic her thesis addresses, and passed her exams summa cum laude.

Michael Gardner Email: