PhD Firsts: A Timeline of Doctoral Research |
Posted on 16 Mar '23

PhD Firsts: A Timeline of Doctoral Research

Getting a PhD is an amazing achievement. Since the twelfth century people have begun defying expectations in the pursuit of new knowledge, making history in the process. In honour of the amazing degree that our website is dedicated to, we decided to look back at the people who paved the way for future students.

Sadly, some people have been lost to history (or are at least well hidden in the archives) and so while this list does not include every ‘first’ achievement, it at least includes some of the highly notable ones. We hope these people can be an inspiration to you and your project.

The first PhD

As far as historians know, the first doctoral degree was awarded in Paris, around 1150. Originally, to achieve a doctoral degree, students had to undergo a long period of advanced scholarship and examination. They did not have to complete original research, unlike today.

It wasn’t until the late seventeenth century that a more recognisable form of the PhD began to develop. The Friedrick Wilhelm University (now the Humboldt University of Berlin) is credited with awarding the first modern PhD as students were required to complete and defend a piece of original research.

First woman to earn a PhD

Elena Cornaro Piscopia was not only one of the earliest women to complete an academic degree but was also the first to receive a PhD. As the third illegitimate child of a powerful Venetian nobleman and his mistress, Elena lived in a precarious position. Despite her father’s efforts she remained unwed and dedicated her life to her studies. By the age of seven she was proficient in at least four languages, mastering seven before she died.

She became educated in Music, Physics, Astronomy and Theology. After involving herself in many of the Venetian academic societies, her tutor petitioned the University of Padua to grant her a PhD in Theology. The bishop, however, refused on the grounds she was a woman. Instead, she was allowed to study for a doctorate in Philosophy. Elena graduated in 1678 after an hour-long presentation in Classical Latin, looking at the works of Aristotle.

Youngest PhD holder

Born in 1800, Karl Witte was the youngest person ever to be awarded a PhD. Born in Germany, his father fostered a strong educational environment. By the age of nine he spoke five languages.

Karl was awarded his doctorate at aged 13 from the University of Giessen and went on to become a prominent scholar of Dante. Growing up, he was the subject of his father’s educational experiments. Karl’s father documented his son’s journey and eventually published his findings. The book, titled The Education of Karl Witte; Or, the Training of the Child, can still be bought today!

First American PhDs

The first doctorates to be awarded in the USA were actually honorary PhDs (to recognise the holder’s general achievements rather than any specific academic research work). Ebenezer Newton Elliott was the first to receive such degree in 1852, presented by Bucknell University. He earned his award because of his distinction as President of the Southern Scientific Institute in the State of Mississippi.

Traditional PhDs did not begin to emerge until a decade later.

Yale was the first university to award PhDs in 1861 and Eugene Schuyler, Arthur Williams Wright and James Morris Whiton were the first students to graduate. All went on to become prominent scholars in their field.

Little is known about Eugene Schuyler’s dissertation, but he previously studied languages, literature and philosophy. Schuyler then went on to become the first American translator of Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy.

Arthur Wright, earning the first PhD in physics outside of Europe, went on to produce the first X-ray image. He was also instrumental in securing funding for the Sloane Physical Laboratory, the first physics lab in the US.

James Whiton earnt his PhD in classics and went on to become a prominent writer on theological and ethical themes.

First African American

Edward Bouchet was the first African American to earn a PhD in the USA. Studying Physics at Yale he graduated as one of the first 20 Americans ever to hold a Physics PhD in 1876. Though he struggled to find a teaching position at a university due to his race, he went on to teach at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth for 26 years. Now the Institute is the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

First Chinese PhD holder

China established its current university system in the nineteenth century and awarded its first PhD soon after. The first of these new institutions was Peiyang University which was founded in 1895. One of the pioneers of Peiyang University was Yen Chin Yung who was sent to the United States to further his education. He secured a prestigious fellowship with Columbia University to study American Constitutional Law and went on to become the first Chinese person to hold a PhD in 1905.

Only two weeks later did a former classmate, Wang Chung Hui, also graduate with a doctorate from Yale.

First African American women

Georgiana Rose Simpson became the first African American woman to receive a PhD in America, graduating in 1921. She studied German at the University of Chicago. Due to racial tensions in the dormitories Georgiana completed most of her degree during the summer periods. She then returned to teach at the high school in Washington, D.C. where she had been working before her studies. In 2017 the Monumental Women Project commissioned a bust of Simpson to be placed in the university grounds.

Three other black women were also awarded their doctoral degrees within nine days of Georgiana’s graduation. Their names were Sadie Tanner Mossell, Eva B Dykes and Anna Julia Cooper.

First Filipino woman

Historian, educator and suffragist, Encarnation A Alzona was the first Filipino woman to be awarded a PhD. Having completed a Masters degree at the University of the Philippines, looking at the education of women in her country, Encarnation received funding to go study in America. There, she obtained another Masters degree in History from Harvard before moving on to Columbia University for her PhD. She graduated in 1923.

Encarnation is most famous for speaking out on the rights of Filipino women when the Philippines was an American colony. It wasn’t until 1937 that Filipino women were granted the right to vote, 17 years after American women earned the same right.

And many more. . .

Kono Yasui – the first Japanese woman to obtain a doctoral degree in science (1927).

Joyce Stone/Erica Wolff – though there is a lot of debate, one of these two women was the first person to graduate with a PhD in Australia (1948).

David Wasawo – became the first East African to be awarded a degree in science when he achieved his Masters in 1952. Technically a Masters first, we decided to include him as he’s often considered Kenya’s first African professor. He graduated from his PhD in 1959.

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Last Updated: 16 March 2023