Elena Cornaro Piscopia — First Woman to Receive a Doctorate

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (5 June, 1646 – 26 July 1684) was the first woman to receive a doctorate:

Beginning at age seven, Elena Piscopia received tutoring in the classical languages of Latin and Greek, as well as grammar and music. In addition to speaking both Latin and Greek fluently, Elena mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic. Her command of languages brought the title Oraculum Septilingue. Elena also exhibited marvelous reasoning powers. She was a student of the sciences as well as of languages, and she studied mathematics and astronomy in addition to philosophy and theology. Elena’s greatest love was for philosophy and theology. In 1672 Elena’s father sent her to the distinguished University of Padua to continue her studies.

Elena Piscopia did not seek degrees from the University of Padua; she simply wanted to continue her learning. However, Giovanni Cornaro insisted that the world recognize his daughter’s incredible knowledge. Thus, at his insistence, Elena applied for a Doctorate of Theology degree from the University of Padua. Her application met with resistance. Officials in the Roman Catholic Church refused to confer the title of Doctor of Theology upon a woman. Elena applied, again, at her father’s insistence. This time the Church compromised and allowed Elena Piscopia to apply for a Doctorate of Philosophy instead.

Elena Piscopia’s Examination for the Doctor of Philosophy degree was to be held in the University Hall of the University of Padua, but due to the multitude of spectators it was transferred to the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin, Padua. Throughout her examination, Elena’s brilliant answers amazed and awed her examiners, who determined that her vast knowledge surpassed the Doctorate of Philosophy. On June 25, 1678 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia received the Doctorate of Philosophy degree from the University of Padua. At age thirty-two she was the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate degree. In addition to the doctorate degree, Elena Piscopia received the Doctor’s Ring, the Teacher’s Ermine cape, and the Poet’s Laurel Crown.

(bio by Sarah Thieling, emphasis mine)

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