If you happen to chance upon Google’s homepage today, you will find the US based search giant paying homage to the first woman in history to earn a doctor of philosophy or PhD degree. Today’s, Google Doodle has been dedicated to Elena Cornaro Piscopia on what would have been her 373rd birth anniversary. The doodle shows Piscopia sitting in a library reading books. Piscopia was a distinguished Italian philosopher and theologian who was born in Venice on this day in 1646.
Piscopia was born in Venice, Republic of Venice on June 5, 1646, and was the third child of Gianbattista Cornaro-Piscopia and his mistress Zanetta Boni. Her mother was a peasant and her parents were not married at the time of her birth which meant she was not technically a member of the Cornaro family by birth. By the time Elena was seven, her parents had recognized her giftedness. A family friend encouraged them to give her lessons in Greek and Latin. She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic, while studying the harpsichord, clavichord, harp, and violin. Elena’s later studies also included mathematics and astronomy, but her greatest interest was in philosophy and theology. After becoming president of the Venetian society Accademia dei Pacifici, she enrolled at the University of Padua in 1672.
Although she was allowed to study there, Elena’s application for a Doctorate of Theology was rejected, because church officials refused to bestow the title on a woman. And it was with her father’s support, she applied for a Doctorate of Philosophy. Her oral examination in 1678 attracted so much interest that the ceremony had to be moved from the university to Padua Cathedral to accommodate an audience that included professors, students, senators, and invited guests from Universities all over Italy.
Elena spoke in Latin at the oral examination, explaining difficult passages randomly selected from Aristotle’s writings. Her eloquence so impressed the committee that they expressed their approval viva voce rather than by secret ballot. A wreath of laurel was placed on her head, a gold ring on her finger, a book of philosophy in her hand, and an ermine cape upon her shoulders which was the tradition back then. At the age of thirty-two, Elena became the first woman with a university doctorate, inspiring a trail for generations of women to follow in her footsteps into the highest levels of academia.