The first doctoral degree ceremony at the State University of Limburg
7 May 1976
The first doctoral degree ceremony at the State University of Limburg

Annemieke Klijn

Thanks to a gift by Peter Antony Cuypers (born in Graft, 1948), the UM Art and Heritage Committee received the first doctoral degree certificate issued by the State University of Limburg (precursor of the UM). Cuypers publicly defended his PhD project on 7 May 1976, a very warm day of spring, nearly six months after the university’s opening. His dissertation is on Dynamic ellipsometry, biochemical and biomedical applications, a study of the process of coagulation (see: On the title page of the first copy, the date and time were added by hand at the very last minute because it was not certain yet when, exactly, the university would be granted its ius promovendi. Cuypers received his degree at the authority of rector magnificus Harmen Tiddens, a paediatrician, educational innovator and co-founder of the university. The supervisor of Cuypers’ PhD project, the biochemist Coen Hemker, had well-known Dutch poet and biochemist Leo Vroman flown in from New York to add lustre to the ceremony.

For the first time, the university’s full professors had the opportunity to wear their burgundy gown, while Cuypers wore a dress suit and his two female paranymphs a formal long dress. There had been a fierce debate on the gown. Proponents of modernisation, such as educational expert Wynand Wijnen, actually looked at wearing gowns as outdated nonsense. But the young university would ultimately decide to follow traditional academic ritual in order to be taken seriously as newcomer. This also explains that the degree certificate was in Latin. Cuypers’ assistants at the ceremony (his ‘paranymphs’) were two first-year medial students: Annemieke Mellink (dark hair) and Marie-Louise Nuyens (blond), who would later work as a radiologist and a lung specialist, respectively. One of the ‘opposing’ experts on the committee did not fully grasp the PhD research, for he asked a question, as Cuypers remembers, about ‘the epilepsy indicator’. All in all, it was a festive day. The entire university population, consisting of some 100 students and 80 staff members, got the day off to be able to attend the first PhD ceremony. As a present, Cuypers received a racing bicycle.

Much of the PhD work could not have been performed at Maastricht of course. Together with Professor Hemker, Cuypers had recently come down to Maastricht from Leiden, where cutbacks resulted in the complete research group’s transfer to the newly opened university, ‘including all equipment’, so Cuypers. As an ode to Maastricht, he had the summary of his dissertation translated into the local vernacular – which a non-native of the city happened to identify as Afrikaans. After his PhD defence, Cuypers was appointed assistant professor, later on being promoted to the associate level. He liked the system of problem-based learning, which ‘started from clinical pictures as basis for curricular subjects’. According to Cuypers,  Tiddens, an idealist advocate of ‘exposure to practice’ and ‘practice-orientation’ in teaching, was an inspiring and ‘great chap’. At the time there was a ‘sixties-atmosphere’ among the faculty. Students and professors interacted informally with each other. This atmosphere can be seen on the photo taken during the PhD defence ceremony, showing one of those present with a bared chest. ‘Students would sometimes attend a tutorial meeting with a bottle of beer in hand,’ and at the end of each course it was time for drinks in the Trefcentrum, where the course coordinator was expected to buy a keg of beer for the students.

After fifteen years Cuypers left the university. He accepted a post with DSM, where he did research of materials for medical applications linked to blood. Following his retirement, he left to the North-East of Thailand, where as an Openmind Projects volunteer he taught conversational English in exchange for room and board in a Buddhist monastery.


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