Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646 – 1684): First woman to gain a PhD

Portrait of Elena Cornaro Piscopia: unknown artist, possibly 18th century. Wikimedia Commons: find the original here

Today marks 340 years since the first woman gained her PhD. In wake of the wonderful #ImmodestWomen explosion on Twitter, which has encouraged women to own their achievements and celebrate their PhDs and research following a stand made by Dr Fern Riddell (read her words on what happened here) and some appalling backlash she received for including her hard-earned title in her Twitter name, I can’t think of an anniversary more appropriate to celebrate than that of the achievements of Elena Cornaro Piscopia.  Elena was a mathematician, philosopher and theologian, and gained her degree from the University of Padua on June 25th 1678 at the age of thirty-two. Not only this, but she was also renowned for her charity work. In her short life, she achieved a lot, and became a very trailblazing woman.

Elena was born in Venice on June 5th, 1646, into an old and important noble family. There was a slight catch to this though: Elena was illegitimate. Her parents had fallen in love and had seven children together, but Gianbattista Cornaro Piscopia was part of a high ranking family, and Zanetta Boni, a woman of low birth. They married when Elena was eight years old and Gianbattista spent five years between 1659 and 1664 petitioning the Venetian Senate for the right to purchase the legitimacy of his children and give them noble status. Finally, upon his fifth attempt, and spending 105,000 ducats, he was successful. Gianbattista himself was the Procurator of San Marco, which, as a position in Venice, was second only to the Doge. Alongside this, he was very ambitious with his children and made sure that from an early age, Elena was educated alongside her brothers.

By the time Elena was nineteen years old, she had gained a reputation as one of the most learned women in Italy, with people travelling from all over to the Palazzo Cornaro in Venice to meet with her. This was unsurprising when you read the list of things she excelled at in her studies: as regards to languages alone, she spoke SEVEN besides her own, earning her the title Oraculum Septilingue. These included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Arabic and Chaldaic. Besides this, she was tutored by the family priest Gianbattista Fabris in philosophy and theology, and other leading scholars in grammar and the sciences, as well as in music. Elena could both read and write music, sing and play the violin, harp, clavichord and harpsichord. Her classical education had begun when she was just seven years old.

Elena was devoutly religious, and took a vow of chastity at eleven, thus turned down many marriage proposals from potential suitors. She really wanted to join the Benedictine Order of Nuns, but her father refused, and instead decided that she should go to university. In 1672 he bought her a house near to the University of Padua, the third oldest university in Italy, where Elena commenced studying theology.

At university, Elena became famous for her debates with other scholars. This was so much so that when it came to the day she was conferred her degree, there were such a large audience that gathered at the University Hall to listen to her examination, that she had to be examined in the nearby Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin. For her examination, she spoke for an hour, explaining several different sections of Aristotle’s work. Not only that, but she did it in classical Latin! She succeeded in passing her degree, but there was an issue in giving it to her. As a woman, she was barred from receiving a doctorate in Theology by the Catholic Church, as it would have automatically given her the right to preach. Instead, she was awarded a doctorate in Philosophy, and it is this that goes down in history as being the day that the first woman received a PhD.

Elena sadly only lived six years beyond the completion of her PhD. In 1678 she became an instructor in Maths at the same University she had studied at, as well as gaining membership to many academies and maintaining correspondence with other academics both in Italy and abroad. She also continued to be devoted to her charity work. In 1684, she contracted tuberculosis and passed away, and was buried very simply in the Church of Santa Guistina. Four years after her death, her writings were published, which included academic discourses, translations and devotional works.

I think Elena’s feat at being the first woman to receive a doctorate is pretty amazing – the second woman to do so, Laura Bassi, didn’t receive hers for another fifty-four years (again in Italy!). Even then it was a VERY rare thing to happen and women still weren’t admitted to universities as a standard practice: this didn’t really happen until the nineteenth century. It just goes to show that if given the opportunity, women could and can seriously achieve, just as well as men. And, given recent events, it’s definitely an achievement women should not be modest about.

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