KEYWORDS: Laura Bassi, Newtonian Physics, Bologna, Female Scientists in the 18th Century Italy, University of Bologna.
SHE THOUGHT IT
Laura Bassi, in full Laura Maria Catarina Bassi, was appointed to the chair of experimental physics at the University of Bologna in 1776, becoming the first woman ever to hold a university chair in a scientific field at a European university. Before that she was already a recognized scientist and a public figure, known well beyond Bologna and Italy.1 She earned her degree of doctor of philosophy in 1732 after a public disputation, which culminated in public celebrations. Poetry was published and a medal coined in Bassi’s honour. She was admitted as a first female member to the prestigious Bologna Academy of Sciences. She was an early proponent of Newtonian physics and based her courses on material found in Newton’s Principia2 (p. 360). Bassi lectured for 40 years about experimental and theoretical physics, but unfortunately little of those lectures has survived to today. Of the few surviving letters and the few published lectures we find out that throughout her career she conducted research in a variety of scientific fields. She was interested in air and hydrostatic pressure, hydrodynamics, and magnetism and conducted research in the then new and widely popular field, electricity3 (p. 442-443). Whilst none of her works brought significant new scientific advances, her career was important for the positions and respect she attained, paving the way for future generations of female scientists in European universities.1,3
Laura Bassi was the only child surviving into adulthood of a well-to-do Bassi family in Bologna. She was not only a gifted child, but her parents also supported her education from early on.4 From the age of twelve onwards she received systematic tutoring from professor Gaetano Tacconi, a family friend and physician. She dazzled Tacconi and his colleagues with her knowledge and wit, becoming something of a popular curiosity, publicly debating philosophical questions and displaying her abilities. Among the people examining young Bassi’s abilities was the scholar and archbishop of Bologna, Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, later the Pope Pope Benedict XIV, who eventually became her most influential patron.6 On the 17th of April 1732 she had her doctoral disputation, her doctoral thesis consisted of 49 presentations about physics, metaphysics and logic.5 She received the title of Doctor of Philosophy, and was accepted in the Academy of Science (Bolognese Instituto della Science e delle Arti) as the first and for a long time the only woman, other Bassi’s contemporary female scientists were accepted only as honorary members without full membership rights. In 1745 Pope Benedict XIV reorganized the Bologna Academy of Sciences to create a special group of 25 scientists, called the Benedettini, who were expected to present their research regularly. Bassi was named in the Benedittini, but without the same privileges and rights as the other 24 members.6
In the 19th Century Bologna and other Italian university cities there was ongoing discussion about women’s education. While higher education remained mostly closed from women, the attitudes were changing. There were more and more opportunities for women to attend University and even work in scientific research2 (p. 360). Notable Bassi’s contemporaries were anatomy teacher Anna Morandi Manzolini and the mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Of these three researchers, however, only Bassi received a professorship and could actually teach at the university. Bassi too faced obstacles in her career because of her gender.1,3 The Bolognese university professors were hesitant to let a woman teach at the university, and before receiving the full professorship at the age of sixty four, Bassi did most of her teaching privately at her home or at the Academy of Sciences. In 1738 Bassi married Giuseppe Verati, a fellow physician. Their marriage was happy and the couple worked together on research on electricity. Sources report them having eight2 (p. 361) or twelve children1, only four of whom however survived their mother. After Bassi’s third formal disputation, as late as 1776, she finally earned a full professorship in experimental physics at the University of Bologna and was officially and practically allowed to teach at the university. She now also received a fix salary and Veratti was named as her assistant. Bassi suffered from severe health problems all her life. She died at the age of sixty-seven in Bologna.
THEY SAID IT
“There is no Bassi in London, and I would be much happier to be added to your Academy of
Bologna than to that of the English, even though it has produced a Newton.”
Voltaire in a letter to Bassi in 1744, Cited in: Findlen P (1993) Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi. Source: Isis, Vol. 84, No. 3 (441-469) p. 141-42
“Bassi is one of the most interesting women natural philosophers of the early moderm period. During her long tenure as a professor at the University of Bologna and the most prominent female member of Italy’s leading scientific society, she played a central role in the introduction of new forms of learning into the university science curriculum and in the constitution of a network of experimenters that connected Italy to the scientific culture of France and England. Other women natural philosophers published more than she did – for example, Margaret Cavendish, Maria Sybilla Mer ian, and Voltaire’s celebrated companion, Emilie du Chatelet-but Bassi was best at inserting herself within the academic world of science.”
Findlen P (1993) Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi. Source: Isis, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), (441-469) p. 41-42
”Finally to satisfy, if one ever can, the demands of Signora Laura Bassi who, although she has no right to be admitted among the Professors of the Institute, nevertheless has asked for this well over three Years, having nurtured some hope of this more than once…. she is a celebrated Woman known to the entire Republic of Letters, who truly brings great honor to her Patria, thus it seems that [her request] merits benign attention.”
Recorded discussion about Laura Bassi, Cited in: Assunteria dell’Istituto: Corsi, Laboratori e Professori: Diversorum (1776), Vol. 15, no. 42, quoted through Findlen P (1993) Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi. Source: Isis, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), (441-469)
PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS
1732: Doctorate of Philosophy, University of Bologna
1732: Member of the Academy of Science of Bologna
1745: Honorary Member of the Benedittini group of scientists
1891: Scuola Normale Superiore Femminile di Bologna a Laura Bassi, now, Liceo Laura Bassi a high school in Bologna, named after her
1991: Crater on Venus named in her honour
Internet Archive: Stanford University Libraries, Bassi-Veratti Collection. Available from: https://bv.stanford.edu/en/about/laura_bassi
Donati S (2016) Laura Bassi: Paving the Way for Female Academics [Internet]. Italoamericano.org. Available from: http://www.italoamericano.org/story/2016-1-18/laura-bassi
Nurminen M (2003). Tiedon tyttäret. Helsinki: Söderström.
Findlen P (1993). Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi. 84(3):441-469. Available from: https://www.jstor.org.uaccess.univie.ac.at/stable/pdf/235642.pdf
Fritze, M (2013). Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe: The Extraordinary Life and Role of Italy’s Pioneering Female Professor. Springer.
- Donati S. Laura Bassi: Paving the Way for Female Academics [Internet]. Italoamericano.org. 2016 [last accessed 9 January 2018]. Available from: http://www.italoamericano.org/story/2016-1-18/laura-bassi
- Nurminen M. Tiedon tyttäret. Helsinki: Söderström; 2009.
- Findlen P. Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi. Isis [Internet]. 1993 [last accessed 15 December 2017];84(3):441-469. Available from: https://www.jstor.org.uaccess.univie.ac.at/stable/pdf/235642.pdf
- Bassi-Veratti Collection: Laura Bassi and the Bassi-Veratti Collection [Internet]. Bv.stanford.edu. [last accessed 9 January 2018]. Available from: https://bv.stanford.edu/en/about/laura_bassi
- Laura Bassi – University of Bologna [Internet]. Unibo.it. 2018 [last accessed 9 January 2018]. Available from: http://www.unibo.it/en/university/who-we-are/our-history/famous-people-guests-illustrious-students/laura-bassi
- Gregersen E. Laura Bassi | Italian scientist [Internet]. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2017 [last accessed 9 January 2018]. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Laura-Bassi