One of the first women in the world to receive an academic degree and the first to receive a Ph.D. degree did it in 1678 in Padua, Italy.
Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, also known in English as Helen Cornaro, was a Venetian philosopher of noble descent who in 1678 became one of the first women to receive an academic degree from a university and the first to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree.
As a young girl, Lady Elena was seen as a prodigy. By the advice from Giovanni Fabris, a priest who was a friend of the family, she began a classical education. She studied Latin and Greek under distinguished instructors, and became proficient in these languages, as well as French and Spanish, by the age of seven. She also mastered Hebrew and Arabic, earning the title of Oraculum Septilingue ("Seven-language Oracle"). Her later studies included mathematics, philosophy, and theology.
Elena came to be an expert musician, mastering the harpsichord, the clavichord, the harp, and the violin. In her late teens and early twenties, she became interested in physics, astronomy, and linguistics. Carlo Rinaldini [it], her tutor in philosophy, and at that point the Chairman of Philosophy at the University of Padua, published a book in 1668 written in Latin and centering on geometry. The book was dedicated to a twenty-two-year-old Elena.
In 1669, she translated the Colloquy of Christ by Carthusian monk Lanspergius from Spanish into Italian. The translation was dedicated to Gian Paolo Oliva, her close friend, and confessor. The volume was issued in five editions in the Republic from 1669 to 1672. She was invited to be a part of many scholarly societies when her fame spread and in 1670 she became president of the Venetian society Accademia dei Pacifici.
Upon the recommendation of Carlo Rinaldini, her tutor in philosophy, Felice Rotondi petitioned the University of Padua to grant Cornaro the laurea[d] in theology. When Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo, the bishop of Padua, learned that she was pursuing a degree in theology, he refused on the grounds that she was a woman. However, he did allow for her to get a degree in philosophy and after a brilliant course of study, she received the Laurea in Philosophy. The degree was conferred on 25 June 1678, in Padua Cathedral in the presence of the University authorities, the professors of all the faculties, the students, and most of the Venetian Senators, together with many invited guests from the Universities of Bologna, Perugia, Rome, and Naples. She was proclaimed Magistra et Doctrix Philosophiae ["teacher and doctor in philosophy"], thus becoming one of the first women to receive an academic degree from a university, and the first to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree.
The last seven years of her life were devoted to study and charity. She died in Padua in 1684 of tuberculosis and was buried in the church of Santa Giustina.