Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pope Francis Does Not Have a Master's Degree in Chemistry

Last night on Twitter, a classic conversation was started again: "Who is the most famous living chemist?" Very quickly, it was determined that both Pope Francis and Chancellor Angela Merkel should be considered for the "most famous person to have a chemistry degree" position.

This brought Forbes editor Alex Knapp into the conversation when he said that Pope Francis has a master's degree in chemistry. There was a discussion of the variety of news sources, including a pre-papacy Catholic News Service story from 2005 that likely originated the claim:
  • that as a young man, Jorge Bergoglio earned a master's degree in chemistry
  • from the University of Buenos Aires 
I remember being skeptical of this claim in 2013, but yesterday's conversation had me looking up Pope Francis' current Vatican biography, where the claim is not present (it does note what everyone agrees about - that he has a diploma in chemical technology.) Interestingly, there's a blog about the Shroud of Turin (there's a blog about everything!) with a 2013 post where the author and commenters roundly debate the likelihood that Pope Francis has a M.S. in chemistry. The post also contains quotes from the Pope's Wikipedia talk page showing others with skepticism about these claims. 

I also found it notable that searching through the University of Buenos Aires' English and Spanish language websites is not fruitful. Nor does UBA's English language Wikipedia page list him as a famous alumnus. 

While Googling, I came across a mostly positive New York Times review of a biography of Pope Francis by journalist Austen Ivereigh. This being 2015, I was able to tweet to Dr. Ivereigh the following question: 
Much US media believes Pope Francis to have a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires - is that accurate?
This was Dr. Ivereigh's response (1, 2, 3): 
[H]e completed what would be a kind of diploma in food chemistry, a technical qualification but not a degree. 
and certainly not a Masters.
Between the opinion of a biographer of Pope Francis, that his Vatican biography does not list that degree and that the claimed university does not seem to claim him as an alumnus, it is clear that Pope Francis does not have a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires.


  1. The Pope went to a "technical" highschool with curriculum designed to prepare kids for lab and chemical industry jobs. By the way, this system of industry-oriented highschools is also quite common in the Central Europe, and the level of professional education provided is higher than what is common in US, so there may be some overlap with freshman college level material. But most definitely it was not MS program...

    1. I second milkshake: in Italy we have the same, and yes, it used to give very good professional education in the past. For my parent's generation (I'm 35) it was very common. Nowadays the quality has declined, and a "laurea" degree(= 5 years, equivalent to a completed Masters, not a "failed" PhD) is the entry level.

    2. I´m from Argentina and, as the Pope, I achieved a "Técnico Químico" degree (followed by an MS and a PhD). It´s exactly as Milkshake described it: in the early 20th century an industry oriented high school program was implemented here in Argentina. It was meant to give the practical knowledge necessary for performing as technicians in areas such as mechanics, electricity and chemistry among others. The objective was to give people who wasn´t going to attend to a university the knowledge to occupy a position in the industry.

  2. In my part of Central Europe a top graduate from a (chemical) Technical High-school [best translation of the official name] was much more appreciated than an average MSc (chemistry) with the exception of synthetic organic chemistry. For a fresh MSc it took good five years on the job to advance ahead of the tech.

    The T.H. took five years vs. four years for a non-degree general high-school. The MSc took also five years - after high-school or T.H.

    The run-of-the-mill MSc at graduation would probably have fewer hours in the lab than a T.H. graduate. Only the best MSc programs beat the top T.H. programs in terms of lab experience. A student would have to step outside of a standard MSc program (as yours truly did) to ensure the best lab load and a chance for admission to a Ph.D. program.

    A few TH graduates would go on to MSc programs. The high-school schmucks feared these guys like some holy water. It was next to impossible to beat their GPAs. Some exams were graded on a curve and with MSc graduation rates in the low 20% to upper teens the bottom of the pile was really crowded.

    At that time there weren't any B.S. programs where I lived. One could graduate after four years of college with a no-research non-degree diploma. This track was more popular in engineering schools.

  3. Agree with SJ. It' the same in Italy.
    Technical High Schools have a long and honoured story.
    In the past, with an universitary system blocked and mainly concentrated on humanities, a degree of Perito Industriale (more or less, Industrial Engineer, with about 20 specialisations), earned at 19, was by far the highest instruction degree that was required by most industries for a leading position.
    It was so when I earned mine (in Textile Chemistry) in '79, and of course it was so in the past.

    When I was born, and the generation of our fathers (same of Bergoglio) was young, in Italy only 5% of population had either a High School or Lyceum degree, or higher... but it was enough for them to transform a destroyed country in one of the most advanced in the world!

    Only in last decades in Italy we have two levels of universitary degree and the PhD. Before, our five-years Laurea in Chimica was the only title higher than Perito Chimico.
    For a lot of the university exams, there was simply no competition between us and our fellows coming from Liceo.

    Presently, Technical High Schools (the historical ones, and a few more recent) are still a vital part of our economy, preparing both for qualified jobs and for the university, and hopely they are recovering their role with the school reform, as in last decades they acuatlly declined a little.

    No way they are simply practical training courses... after all I know a bunch of surgeons, advocates, Parliament members, journal editors, architetcs, which started as a Perito Chimico out of my same school. Apart, of course, the chemical academics and the chemical entrepreneurs.

    This is what I try to explain to my students, during they five years in the same Technical High School - where I'm presently teaching, showing them that at least on certain topics they are dealing with programs that in US or even UK they could meet at the second or third year of the university path. Those of them who try a job experience abroad are really satisfied.

    And when Bergoglio was elected, I told them "Is it clear that a chemistry high scool is preparing you for ANY position you like?"

  4. Isn't Angela Merkel technically a physicist, despite having switched to theoretical chemistry for her PhD work?

    1. I thought Angela Merkel had a physical chemistry PhD?

    2. She did her doctoral work in a physical chemistry group. However, her degree is dr. rer. nat. (doctor of natural science), so she technically has one degree in physics, one in natural science and none in chemistry.

    3. Dr. rer. nat. (Doctor rerum naturalium), literally "Doctor of the things of nature", Doctor of Natural Sciences are awarded by universities in some European countries (e. g. Germany, Austria) to graduates in Chemistry, Biology, Geology, Physics, Mathematics, or similar areas.

  5. I want to make sure it's clear that I'm not criticizing the contents of Pope Francis' education, just the seemingly American interpretation (that it was an MS at the University of Buenos Aires). Those two things are clearly without backing, and if were to, say, go on Twitter and search for it, you'd find plenty of "factbots" repeating this non-fact.

    That said, the technical high school education sounds like a fascinating concept.

  6. Regardless what wish to classify the Pope's degree level it would seem to be another example of some one in chemistry switching fields to find greater career stability and success in different a "calling"

  7. Regardless of what you designate his degree as or equivocate his education to, the Pope has a better grasp of science than Santorum. Obvs.

    1. Probably, but then again, Santorum isn't a communist willing to cynically exploit the global warming scam to bring about the revolution.

    2. Actually, I take that "probably" back. Between Santorum's two graduate degrees and his college degree, Santorum probably has a superior grasp of mathematics and statistics, relative to Pope Francis' and his not-quite-a-community-college-equivalent cert.