Elena Cornaro Piscopia - The first woman to earn a PhD

June 05, 2019

Today's Google Doodle introduced me to Elena Piscopia, the first woman ever to be awarded a PhD, who was born on this day 373 years ago. Shamefully, I had not previously heard of this amazing female, who I now hold in my mind alongside the esteemed Leonardo da Vinci and Lewis Carroll as a polymath of exceptional talent.

As a young girl, Lady Elena (though born of unmarried parents) was seen as a child prodigy. She was born in the Palazzo Loredan, at Venice on 5 June 1646 during a time in history where it was frowned upon for women to receive an education. Luckily for Elena, her family took on board the advice of their priest friend, Giovanni Fabris, to be imparted a classical education.

Through her early years, she studied Greek and Latin under distinguished instructors, also learning French and Spanish by the age of seven. Once having mastered Hebrew and Arabic, she was given the title Oraculum Septilingue ("Seven-language Oracle"), and later expanded her studies to include mathematics, philosophy and theology.

In addition to these scholarly applications, Elena was an accomplished musician, demonstrated by her mastery of the harpsichord, the clavichord, the harp and the violin and her musical compositions. Through her late teens and early twenties she began to study physics, astronomy and linguistics, though it appears Elena's interest in philosophy and theology had become her most potent interest.

In 1669, Elena translated the Colloquy of Christ by Carthusian monk Lanspergius from Spanish into Italian, a volume which was issued in five editions in the Republic from 1669 to 1672 and earned her notoriety as a scholar of interest. Despite her accomplishments, Elena was denied a laurea (Italy's main post-secondary academic degree) in theology from the University of Padua on the grounds that she was a woman by Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo, the bishop of Padua. However, Barbarigo did allow her to study for a degree in philosophy.

Elena's examination for the Doctors in Philosophy degree should have been 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. She awed and amazed her audience throughout a whole hour of speaking in Classical Latin, and completed to great plaudits, and received received the Doctor's Ring, the Teacher's Ermine cape, and the Poet's Laurel Crown.

Elena's graduation, memorialised at Vassar College in the Thompson Memorial Library

Following her graduation, it has been suggested that Elena took up teaching mathematics at the University of Padua, though she later took up the habit of a Benedictine Oblate (without formally becoming a nun). Sadly, this great lady suffered an untimely death at the hands of tuberculosis in 1684 at the age of 38.

Bennedetto Baccini published Elena's collected works in both Italian and Latin posthumously in 1688, which you can read free on Google Books.

I rather enjoyed reading and learning about Elena Cornaro, particularly as I've recently been searching for examples of female polymaths as inspiration for future posts. Please do let me know of any other notable women you feel I should research (and potentially write posts about) in the comments below.

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