Elena Cornaro Piscopia, PhD

Elena Cornaro Piscopia
(1646 – 1684)

On June 25, 1678, Venetian philosopher of noble descent Elena Cornaro Piscopia, was the first woman to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia‘s intellectual ability was noticed early, wherefore the local priest encouraged her family to enable Piscopia a formal education. She was then taught Latin, Greek, and Arabic starting at the age of seven. Later on, she also began learning mathematics, philosophy, theology, astronomy, and several other languages. In the 1660‘s the multi talented young woman became widely known as a musician, since she was able to play various instruments, such as the clavichord, the harp, the violin and she also composed music pieces by herself.

Around 10 years later, Elena Piscopia intended to enter the Benedictine Order, which her father forbid. Instead, he made her enroll at the University of Padua, one of the most prominent universities of her time.

With her father’s support, she applied for a doctorate in theology, but again she met resistance, this time it was the university itself. The Bishop of Padua, who was also the university‘s chancellor strongly resisted in letting a woman receive a degree in theology. She again applied for a doctorate degree, and this time she was granted the doctorate degree in philosophy. She received her degree in 1678 as the first woman globally. The news about the female scientist spread widely, wherefore her graduation ceremony had to be relocated several times into larger buildings. Elena Piscopia became very famous as her teachers always emphasized her brilliant writings and the incredibly flourishing discussions they have had with her.

You would maybe think, that her success caused more women to feel encouraged reaching similar goals and that the overall acceptance towards women in science would improve. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. After her graduation, the hostility towards female candidates longing for university degrees grew. The next candidate was presumably Carla Gabriella, who applied for examination a few years later, but her request was not granted. The next woman to achieve the doctorate degree had to ‘wait’ several decades.

However, after Piscopia‘s great accomplishment, she started giving lectures in mathematics, but soon after decided to finally join the Benedictine Order.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture on the History of Women in Science by Susan Williams.

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