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The first female physics professor at a European university—with many other 'firsts' to her name.
Issue #15 : physics, Isaac Newton, debating, teaching, motherhood.
With an academic career spanning nearly five decades, this woman achieved the status of ‘first’ many times over. A child prodigy in the scientific subjects that were restricted from most girls, she earned a reputation for being at the forefront of science and academics, was an expert debater, and broke several barriers for women throughout Europe. And she did it all while having a thriving personal and family life.
Laura Maria Catarina Bassi was born 31 October 1711 in Bologna, in what was then the Papal States (now Italy). Her father was a lawyer who was known to be progressive, while little appears to be known about her mother aside from her name. Laura was her parents’ only surviving child, and she received the kind of education that was rare for a girl of her time: beginning with the usual French and arithmetic, her studies soon branched into the ‘masculine’ areas of Latin (the language of science), mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy. Laura showed a particular interest in Isaac Newton’s theories of classical mechanics, and although she didn’t know it at the time, this would come to greatly influence her later work and the direction of her life.
At the age of 13, the Bassi family doctor, Gaetano Tacconi—a man who was also a professor of medicine and philosophy at the University of Bologna—took charge of Laura’s education, having noted her abilities. By 1731 he invited multiple professors from his university, alongside Prospero Lambertini (the archbishop of Bologna who also held a doctorate in theology and law) to come and examine Laura’s progress. Word of his young protege’s extraordinary intelligence spread, and the following year she was at the centre of a series of public academic events organised by the archbishop.
“…the infinite and incredible erudition demonstrated by this young girl, beyond her sex and age, supported by the many conclusions that she sustained many times about all of philosophy, with such liveliness, quickness, nobility of speech, and profound learning that you would not be able to believe it if you had not heard her.” – Paula Findlen, professor of Italian history
Several adult scholars from the Academy of Science of Bologna attended these events, and Laura entered into philosophical arguments with them all—despite being their junior, a student, and a girl. The all-male academics were impressed with her debate skills plus her ability to rapidly assimilate new information, and buzz began to build around the aspiring scientist.
“Laura debated with men on several of the ideas that were of prime interest in her time, especially those regarding theories of electricity, gases, and water.” Dr. Monique Frize, professor and author
Laura’s education continued under Gaetano Tacconi until she was 20 years old, and her graduate work covered a wide range of topics including metaphysics, chemistry, philosophy, physics, hydraulics, anatomy, logic, Ancient Greek, mathematics, refrangibility, geometry, gravity, and mechanics. Eventually Prospero Lambertini took over as Laura’s patron; Gaetano had wanted Laura to concentrate solely on the subject matter of ethics, but she was more interested in physics, which Prospero supported—making him the more appealing of the two to expand her studies with.
“In our time experimental physics has become such a useful and necessary science.” – Laura Bassi
Laura’s academic career continued to thrive under Prospero’s patronage. On 20 March 1732, the sixteen members of the Bologna Academy of Sciences, after a unanimous vote, admitted Laura as their first ever female member. It was a remarkable achievement, although the membership was made honorary rather than practical because of her sex.
Less than a month later, Laura defended her theses. It was a public debate in which she defended 49 philosophical and physical theses against four professors from Bologna. The event had been set up as a spectacle for the public to attend, with Prospero arranging for it to be in a town hall instead of the customary church—in part because Laura’s growing notoriety meant an interested audience was almost guaranteed, and in part so that no one would be able to doubt that a young woman had been able to hold her own in the academic world of men.
“Because of her sex, Laura had to perform in a very public manner in order to obtain recognition of her abilities and knowledge.” – Dr. Monique Frize
On 12 May Laura received her doctorate in philosophy, making her the second woman ever in Europe to earn a doctorate (the first will be featured in a future edition of Traditional Women). Public celebrations were held throughout Bologna: collections of poetry were published in her honour, miniature paintings made to decorate official university documents, and a commemorative medal created and stamped with an image of Laura as Minerva, the Roman goddess of learning. Laura’s name became known as far afield as Britain, France, and Germany.
“To the most learned and erudite young lady Laura M C Bassi.” – preface by Father Lorenzo Stegnani in a 1732 collection of poems published in Laura’s honour
To further her studies, Laura requested a licence to read books that had been prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church—a move that was shocking to many, but which Laura deemed necessary. She also increased her studies in calculus, and apprenticed herself to a professor of experimental physics and chemistry.
On 27 June, Laura publicly defended another set of theses, this time about the properties of water. This resulted in her being appointed at the university as a professor of physics that December. Laura had not requested the position; it was given due to her extraordinary intelligence, and growing reputation. Indeed, the city of Bologna believed its own renown and prestige would increase by having Laura on the university staff. Accepting the position made Laura the first woman in all of Europe to have a salaried position as a university professor.
Happily, Laura’s career did not come at the expense of a personal life. On 7 February 1738 she married Giovanni Giuseppe Veratti, a physician who was also a lecturer in science at the University of Bologna, and like Laura had been elected to the Academy. At the time of their union, Laura was considered the greater of the two scientific minds, and many of the public who admired Laura were unafraid to voice their opinion that the marriage was beneath her.
“This marriage does not fill with satisfaction the citizens, who did not mince words in declaring it so, not only because of the bridegroom, who is a man of half merit, but more because of the bride, who might have done better if she had remained a virgin in any retreat.” – Giovanni Giacomo Amadei, a canon of the church of S Maria Maggiore in Bologna
Laura defended her marriage in much the same way she defended her theses: with clear logic and reasoning. She had found a husband who would never prevent her from continuing to pursue her research and studies, and who would be her partner intellectually as well as romantically.
“I have chosen a person who walks the same path of learning, and who from long experience, I was certain would not dissuade me from it.” – Laura Bassi on her marriage
The newlyweds worked together. Husband and wife teams were not unusual during this Enlightenment era in Italy, but the standard was for women to be their husband’s assistants, or sometimes their networkers. Laura and Giovanni differed in that they worked as equals—or as equal as possible, given Laura did not have the full access to the university that her male counterpart did.
Because of her gender, Laura was not allowed to teach on the university premises despite being a professor there. She could only give lectures on the special occasions when the public were allowed to attend. After requesting in 1739 that the university expand her teaching duties, but being denied, Laura (with Giovanni’s full support) turned her home into its own university. It was a move only made possible by her marriage; if she’d remained unmarried, as some had wanted, inviting groups of men to her home—even with the legitimate reasoning that they were her students—would have been unthinkable. But with her husband in attendance and even working alongside her, Laura gave lectures and experimental demonstrations, taught private classes, and hosted scholars. Some of her experiments made use of the exciting new discovery that was electricity, and it was Laura who was responsible for promoting Newtonian physics—which she was a big proponent of—in Italy. Her school was a great success, and students included the biologist and physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani and physicist, chemist, and inventor of the battery Alessandro Volta—the latter of whom sent his earliest publications to Laura in the hope they would gain her approval.
“What little I know, I originally learned from her wise instruction.” Lazzaro Spallanzani, experimental physiologist, to Veratti on Laura Bassi in 1782
During her life, Laura gave birth to somewhere between eight and twelve children—the records are unclear on the exact number, with only five reaching adulthood. With a large family, Laura had to split her time between her academics and raising her children. Her scientific interests were influential even for her children though, with her son Paolo eventually becoming a physician and experimental physicist himself.
Balancing motherhood and a career, Laura lived the professional side of her life quite publicly, often participating in debates and appearing at the annual public anatomy dissection Bologna held during their Carnival. She wrote poetry for high-profile public functions, and hosted a scientific salon in her home (alongside the continued teaching of her classes).
In 1740, the archbishop Prospero Lambertini who had been Laura’s patron became Pope Benedict XIV. Five years later, in an effort to keep Italy at the forefront of the scientific world, he formed a special group of 24 scientists called the Benedettini. The all-male members were all chosen by Prospero, and were required to present him with at least one scholarly research paper per year. Laura, who had just given birth to her fifth child, lobbied to become the 25th member. Opinion between the Benedettini was split, with some against her appointment due to her gender, and some for it due to her accomplishments and intelligence.
“…to be always alone in the midst of an assembly of men, and to hear all their discourse and quarrels, doesn’t seem to befit the decency and modesty of her sex.” – One of the Benedettini who opposed Laura’s appointment
The Pope compromised; he made Laura the 25th member, but didn’t allowing her the full voting privileges the 24 men held.
Laura’s yearly Benedettini papers included: ‘On the compression of air’ (1746), ‘On the bubbles observed in free flowing liquids’ (1747), and ‘On bubbles of air that escape from fluids’ (1748). Later papers show her using differential calculus, and reducing equations by the analytic method to solve problems in mechanics and hydrometrics.
While a majority of Laura’s studies focused on physics, she also published papers on other scientific subjects, including two on mathematics, eleven on hydraulics, and one each on mechanics, chemistry, and technology. (Twenty-eight of her papers are held by the Bologna Academy of Sciences.) She also inspired other great thinkers in areas beyond science: French astronomer Jérôme Lalande championed women’s rights to an education and to work in the scientific fields after meeting Laura—a cause he continued to publicly speak on even 40 years after their meeting. A visit to Laura became a rite of passage for scientists and creatives alike who were making a Grand Tour of the continent.
“Most Honoured Lady: I would like to visit Bologna so that I might say to my fellow citizens that I have seen Signora Bassi…” – Voltaire in a letter to Laura Bassi, 23 November 1744
1749 saw Laura expand her classes to open a full domestic school, in which her house became home to an eight-month course of daily lessons and experiments for students. This was more than either the university or the Bologna Institute offered prospective students, and young men came from all over Europe to study under her tutelage.
“The classes have gathered such momentum that they are now attended by people of considerable education, including foreigners, rather than by youths.” – Laura Bassi in a 1755 letter to Flamino Scarselli, ambassador to the papal court
In 1750, Laura requested a pay increase from the university to reflect the fact she was conducting her experiments and lectures from home, and thus having to provide all of her own equipment. It took until 1759 for the university to approve the pay increase—and it came with the condition that Laura continue to run her well-respected school.
Laura’s life continued on in much the same way: teaching, debating, undertaking experiments, writing papers, and caring for her family.
In 1776, at the age of 65, Laura was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Bologna, making her the first woman in the world to hold this position at a university. Her husband Giovanni was named as her assistant. Laura held the position of Chair until her sudden death on 20 February 1778; Giovanni was appointed to the Chair following her death.
At her funeral, silver laurels were placed on Laura’s head (she is often depicted this way in artworks), and her fellow Benedettini members escorted her body to the church where she was buried. She was given numerous eulogies, and several journals wrote notices of her accomplishments. A marble statue of Laura was commissioned, wearing silver laurel leaves, and was placed above a door in the Institute and Academy for Sciences and Arts of Bologna, where her former colleagues would continue to walk beneath her gaze. Her portrait can still be seen in the University Museum.
During her time with the university, Laura was said to have defended at least 31 dissertations. Despite her prolific output, she published very little—as her husband later asserted, she was more interested in building on her research, teaching, and tending to her family responsibilities. Because of this, her accomplishments have not always received their due recognition, despite the fame she achieved during her lifetime. In 2018 though, the academic editing company Editing Press established the Laura Bassi Scholarship to provide editorial assistance to master’s candidates, doctoral candidates, and junior academics. A crater on Venus has also been named in Laura’s honour, as well as a street in Bologna, and in April 2021 a Google doodle celebrated Laura and her life’s work.
In her time Laura Bassi was one of the most visible scientists in all of Europe. She had to outperform her male contemporaries to be awarded half of the same rights, but she never faltered. Nor did she ever stop working to ensure that the scientists who came after her would benefit from her research, knowledge, and skills. She was a woman who could add many titles to her name: scientist, educator, debater, wife, mother, writer, public speaker, entrepreneur, Benedettini, Chair. And every role she had, she embraced with the same steadfast knowledge that she had earned the right to be there.
Further Reading – Non-Fiction:
The Bassi-Veratti Collection, Stanford Libraries
Laura Bassie and the Science in 18th Century Europe by Monique Frize
Laura Bassi—the World’s First Woman Professor in Natural Philosophy by Luisa Cifarelli & Raffaella Simili
Further Reading – Fiction:
Breaking Barriers: A Novel Based on the Life of Laura Bassi by Jule Selbo
Laura Bassi, Una Vita Straordinaria (2011)
Historically Badass Broads podcast, S1 E20 Laura Bassi
If you enjoyed reading about Laura Bassi, you might also enjoy Issue #3:
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