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25 June 2011

On this day in history: First doctorate conferred on a woman, 1678

On 25th June 1678, the University of Padua conferred the first ever doctorate on a woman: Lady Elena Lucrezia Cornaro-Piscopia. She was born in the Palazzo Loredano, Venice, on 5th June 1646 to John Baptist Cornaro-Piscopia, Procurator of San Marco, and his wife Zanetta Giovanna Boni. At the age of seven Elena began her studies under the mentorship of the Aristotelian John Baptist Fabris. Fabris persuaded Elena's father to do all he could to further his daughter's education. Having the money and influence to do so he recruited Professor Alexander Anderson of Padua, Professor Luigi Gradenigo - the librarian at San Marco, and other tutors to school Lady Elena in a variety of disciplines. She became fluent in at least seven languages, including ancient Greek and latin, and because of this became known as Oraculum Septilingue. She also studied mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and theology - the latter two being her favourites.

In 1672 Lady Elena's father sent her to the University of Padua to complete her studies. Initially she had no intention of attaining academic qualifications, rather she simply wanted to continue learning. Nevertheless, because of her father's insistence and in spite of the resistance of some academics and churchmen, who would not permit a woman to become a Doctor of Theology, she was eventually allowed to prepare for the examination for Doctor of Philosophy with Professor Carlo Rinaldini as her tutor.

Six years later, the Cathedral in Padua hosted the public ceremony in which Lady Elena received the doctoral insignia: the laurel wreath placed on the head; the ring on the finger; and the ermine cape over her shoulders. In attendance were the professors of the University of Padua, invited academics from the Universities of Bologna, Ferrara, Perugia, Rome, and Naples, as well as other notable scholars and many of Venetian politicians.

Elena turned her back on the life of privilege and devoted herself to charitable works, becoming a Benedictine oblate. On 26th July 1684, eight years after receiving the doctorate, and at only thirty-eight years of age, Lady Elena Lucrezia Cornaro-Piscopia died of what is believed to have been tuberculosis. The whole city of Padua mourned the loss of this remarkable woman who continues to be remembered: a year after her passing the University of Padua struck a special medal in her honour; a statue of her still stands outside the University; and further afield, Vassar College, New York, has a stained glass window that depicts her presenting her thesis on that day Cathedral of Padua when she became the first woman to receive a doctorate.

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