Elena Piscopia, Italian, 1646-1684, pioneer woman of science and faith

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, Italian, 1646-1684,

Theology, philosophy, mathematics, languages and music, First woman to be awarded a doctorate

Born into Venetian aristocracy, Elena Piscopia shone at an early age. Her birthplace Venice had been a major centre of the Renaissance and Piscopia carried on the tradition started by her male predecessors, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, of being a polymath.

Her enlightened father, provided her with the best learning opportunities available at the time and advocating her cause in the male-dominated corridors of academia. From early on, she exhibited extraordinary reasoning powers. She learned Latin, Greek, music, theology, and mathematics. She eventually added Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldaic, and also French, English, and Spanish. She studied philosophy, and astronomy. Musically talented, by the time she was 17 years old she could sing, compose, and play such instruments as the violin, harp, and harpsichord.

Her achievements attracted the attention of many, including clerics, royals, and scientists. Many came to Venice to meet and speak with her.

Elena herself wanted to enter the Benedictine Order. She secretly practiced the disciplines of the Order and turned down marriage proposals, spending time serving the sick and the poor. But her father refused permission for her to enter the Order, and had her apply instead to the University of Padua.

Although some other women had studied science and math at the university level in Italy in her time, Elena Piscopia was the first to apply in theology. She studied there from 1672-1678, and in 1678, she received her master’s and doctorate of philosophy degrees. She spoke for an hour in classical Latin, explaining difficult passages selected at random from the works of Aristotle.

The young prodigy’s performance amazed and awed her examiners and she breezed through to gain her doctorate, in 1678, at the age of 32.The ceremony awarding her these degrees had to be held in the cathedral to accommodate the crowd that came to see her receive them.

Elena Piscopia became a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Padua, where she served until her early death in 1684. Passionate about learning and helping the poor, she rejected numerous suitors to focus on these pursuits. In fact, she devoted the last years of her life exclusively to study and charity.

Her achievement did not immediately open doors for many others, though. No other woman earned a doctorate at the University of Padua until the late twentieth century


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