Inge Syllm-Rapoport is one of the most inspiring examples of feisty aging I have ever come across.
She completed her medical studies in 1937, just in time for Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws (her mother was Jewish) to prevent her from taking the doctoral exam. The following year she emigrated to the U.S., where she achieved her goal of becoming a doctor.
After World War II, the McCarthy era made the U.S. a risky place for people with socialist leanings. So Rapoport and her husband, biochemist Samuel Mitja Rapoport, fled to East Berlin. There she became Europe’s first chair of neonatology and a professor of pediatrics.
Nearly eight decades later, her son Tom, also a medical school professor, visited the University of Hamburg, where his mother had been denied the right to take her oral exams in 1937. The dean tackled bureaucratic obstacles to clear the way for Rapoport to defend the thesis she had written 77 years earlier. She could probably have received an honorary doctorate, as a way of honoring her 100th birthday, but she did not want that.
She threw herself into the task of updating her research in the area diphtheria treatments, then faced a panel of three professors. After grilling her for three quarters of an hour, they awarded her much-delayed doctorate, this time with the honors she deserved decades earlier.
Asked why she had taken on such a monumental task at her advanced age, Rapoport said it was a matter of principle. She was doing it for all of the victims of the Nazi regime.
Listen to Irris Makler’s documentary about this remarkable woman on CBC’s The Current.