Lady Doctor

Since my dear husband recently received his doctorate (hooray!) I couldn’t resist recognizing Venetian Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who became the first woman awarded a doctorate of philosophy on June 25, 1678.

Elena was born in Venice to a noble family; her father was a Procurator of St. Mark’s, a high office in the Republic of Venice. She was well educated, studying Greek and Latin under distinguished instructors by the time she was seven, and before long she’d also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic. In addition to languages, she studed mathematics, philosophy, and theology.

Her father was apparently more forward-thinking than most men at the time, and he suggested she enter the University of Padua (which was also more forward thinking than most universities of the time—most of them didn’t admit women until the 19th century). On June 25, Elena spoke for an hour in classical Latin, explaining difficult passages selected randomly from the works of Aristotle to the University authorities, professors of all the faculties, students, most of the Venetian Senators, and invited guests from the universities of Bologna, Perugia, Rome, and Naples. Her presentation went well, and she was awarded her doctorate.

After graduation, she became a member of various academies and was well thought of throughout Europe for her accomplishments and virtues. She devoted the (tragically brief) remainder of her life to study and charity. In 1684, she died in Padua of tuberculosis and was buried there in the church of Santa Giustina. A statue of her was placed in the university, and in 1685 a medal was struck in her honor. Her writings were published at Parma in 1688.



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