Elena Cornaro Piscopia became the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Philosophy, otherwise known as a Ph.D.
Elena Cornaro was the daughter of Giovanni Battista Cornaro Piscopia, a member of an influential Venetian noble family. When she was seven years old her father was persuaded to start her on a classical education at which she excelled. By the time Giovanni was appointed to the powerful position of Procuratore di San Marco de supra in 1664, his daughter had already become fluent in numerous languages as well as showing an impressive ability in subjects ranging from music and mathematics to philosophy and theology.
In 1669 Cornaro translated the Spanish volume the Colloquy of Christ by the Carthusian monk Giovanni Lanspergio into Italian. This accomplishment led to her becoming president of the Venetian society Accademia dei Pacifici in 1670. Just two years later at the University of Padua, Cornaro’s tutor in philosophy persuaded his colleague in theology to petition the university to grant her the highest level of degree.
Gregorio Cardinal Barbarigo, the bishop of Padua, initially supported her pursuit of a degree but later withdrew this when he learned that the female savant wished to earn it in theology. He instead offered the compromise that she could pursue a degree in philosophy.
Due to the number of people who wished to see her intellect in person, her examination was held in Padua’s Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin on 25 June 1678. Cornaro’s defence saw her explain two passages chosen at random from Aristotle. She spoke confidently and fluently in classical Latin for over an hour, and was subsequently awarded the doctoral degree in front of the rapturous audience.