Italian physicist Laura Bassi (1711-1778) was the first woman to become a physics professor at a European university. Though Bassi did not publish much of her work, she continued to conduct experiments and teach until her death. Alberto Elena wrote in Isis, "she was a figure of the greatest importance in the intellectually flourishing Bologna of the eighteenth century."
Bassi was born in Bologna, Italy, on November 29, 1711. She was the only child in the Bassi family who survived to maturity. Her father, who was from Modena, was a lawyer of non-noble origins. Bassi showed an intellectual prowess early in her life. Beginning at the age five, she was instructed in Latin, French, and mathematics by Father Lorenzo Stegani, her cousin. She learned quickly, mastering both languages. When Bassi was 13, she began to be tutored by the family doctor and local scholar, Gaetano Tacconi. For the next seven years, he taught her philosophy, metaphysics, logic, and natural philosophy. Bassi's intellectual abilities were soon known throughout the city of Bologna. Scholars visited the Bassi home to meet the child who was wise beyond her years.
The year 1732 was important for 20-year-old Bassi. On March 20, she became a member of the Bologna Academy of Science. On April 17, she was convinced by family and friends to participate in a public philosophy debate against five notable Bolognese scholars. The event was held in Bologna's Palace of the Senators because so many wanted to witness the event. Bassi proved to be an effective debater, impressing the many luminaries, from Bologna and beyond. Those present included the papal legate, Cardinal Grimaldi and Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, who later became Pope Benedict XIV. The latter called on Bassi at her home the next day, encouraging her to continue her studies. Lambertini gave her much needed support throughout her career.
Within a month of this triumph, on May 17, the University of Bologna awarded Bassi an honorary doctorate, because of her obvious intellectual abilities. The event was celebrated in Communal Palace's Hall of Hercules with an ornate ceremony. Bassi received a silver laurel wreath and gave an acceptance speech in Latin. Poetry was written in her honor. She was soon offered a teaching position at the university. In order to earn a professorship, Bassi was asked to undergo yet another public examination. On June 27, she was again successful, earning the 25th chair of physics at the university. Bassi became the first woman to earn a professorship in physics at any university in Europe. Although several Italian universities had employed female faculty members dating back to the thirteenth century, none had yet taught physics.
When Bassi was hired by the University of Bologna, her salary was 500 lire annually. She gave her first lecture in October 1732. Many, from both within and outside of the academic community, attended the lecture, entitled "De aqua corpore naturali elemento aliorum corporum parte universi." It was later published. To commemorate the event, the Senate of Bologna produced a medal in her honor. She was shown on one side and Minerva on the other, with the inscription "Soli cui fas vidisse Minervam."
There was some critical debate over Bassi's true status at the university. Some scholars argued that she did not teach regularly, but was only limited to certain occasions. Others claimed that she had a full lecture load and attracted a diverse group of European students and scientists. In either case, most agreed that Bassi continued her studies in diverse areas such as natural history, Greek, mechanics, and hydraulics. Although she had continued to work with her childhood tutor Tacconi, they parted company when he would not allow her be more intellectually independent. Instead, she spent three years learning higher mathematics from Gabriele Manfredi. Bassi also studied poetry, a pursuit she would continue throughout her life.
As Bassi delved further into higher mathematics and developed a deeper understanding of more complex areas of physics, she became intrigued by the ideas of Sir Isaac Newton, although some of his theories were very controversial at the time. Bassi's status as a serious scholar was confirmed in 1735 when she was given access to a special collection of essential books in the Vatican. Access to the Index Liborum Prohibitorium was limited to those scientists over 24 years of age, though women scholars were usually excluded. Despite Bassi's dedication to improving herself as a scientist, gossip relating to her status as a single female was seen as inhibiting her progress.
Bassi married Giovanni Guiseppe Veratti (Verati in some sources), doctor and professor of natural philosophy at the University of Bologna, on February 7, 1738 in the basilica of San Petronio. The couple eventually had a large family (anywhere from 8 to 12 children, depending on the source). Most believed that they had eight children, based on local baptismal records. Three died in infancy, two girls named Caterina and one son named Flaminio. Five lived to adulthood: Giovanni, Ciro, Giacomo, Paolo, and a third daughter named Caterina. In addition to domestic concerns, Bassi and her husband shared a pursuit of science, conducting experiments together. Veratti may have been responsible for Bassi's growing interest in experimental physics.
Taught Physics in Home
Bassi's new household arrangement also helped further her career. As early as 1738 (or as late as 1750, depending on the source), Bassi began teaching and carrying out experiments in her home. She may have begun with mathematics, but soon began to lecture in physics. The arrangement was beneficial in a number of ways. She could teach whatever she wanted in the manner she so chose without the university's interference. Also, it allowed her to pursue her own research in her own time and using her own methodology. Bassi's teaching also gave her funds to buy the equipment necessary for these experiments. Because of her reputation, Bassi's students expanded from younger students to different kinds of scholars of all ages. Among her students was a cousin, Lazzaro Spallanzani, who later became a scientist with her help. Bassi's salary at the University of Bologna also increased because of her home lectures, in recognition of her work.
Though she conducted much of her work at home, Bassi's reputation was firmly entrenched throughout Europe. She corresponded with the leading figures of the day, including French philosopher/author, Voltaire. In 1744-45, she helped him become a member the Bologna Academy of Science, to which she had belonged since 1932. Bassi herself was given membership in a newly formed scientific academy in 1745. She had to lobby for admittance to the Benedettina Academy, an elite group of 24 within the greater academy. Bassi became an additional twenty-fifth member. Membership in this group was important to Bassi for a number of reasons: it added to her yearly income; it gave her another means of collaboration; and it gave her a place to present her work, since members were required to give an annual presentation.
Bassi began presenting annual papers to the Academy beginning in 1746. By the time of her death, she had presented a total of 31 papers. Though many of these papers were unpublished and the topics lost to time, several have remained. Some scholars claimed that Bassi did not publish many articles or do much original research. Others believed her total output was comparable to other scientists in her time period and circumstances. In 1746, she presented De aeris compressione (On the Compression of Air), which described her experiments to determine if air had any elasticity. On the Bubbles Observed in Free Flowing Liquids was presented in 1747. A year later, Bassi submitted De immixito fluidis aere (On Bubbles of Air that Escape from Fluids. This paper studied different kinds of liquids and examined the causes of bubble formation when they were housed in certain kinds of glass containers.
In 1757, the Academy published two of Bassi's dissertations in Latin. They were De problemate quodam mechanico (a study of a certain kind of trajectory motion of two bodies on a curve) and De problemate quodam hydrometrico (alternate solutions to a complex hydrometrical problem). In the 1760s, Bassi's research focused primarily on electricity and related phenomenon. As early as 1746, she and her husband purchased an electrical machine to use in experiments. Bassi also conceived her own devices for electricity experiments.
Gained New Teaching Positions
Though it was unclear how much Bassi taught formally at the University of Bologna, she was considered a member of the staff throughout her life. By 1760, her salary was the highest, equal to the most famous staff member, at 1200 lire. Bassi added an additional teaching position to her schedule in 1766. That year, she became the preceptor for experimental physics for students attending the Collegio Montalto. The Collegio was not a traditional learning institution like the University of Bologna. Its students, primarily those from the March Province, were taught in professors' homes. The college was basically a free seminary, founded by Pope Sixtus V, whose students earned degrees in theology, law, or both.
Two years before her death, Bassi received another chance to teach outside of her home. The Institute of Science, which was connected to the Academy, had an opening in experimental physics when Paola Battista Balbi died. Bassi's husband had been his assistant, and could have taken over the job. But he lacked the higher mathematics necessary. With some lobbying, Bassi was given Balbi's vacated chair. Her husband was named her assistant.
Bassi died on February 20, 1778, in Bologna, leaving her husband and four of their children. Outside of science, Bassi was known for her strong religious convictions, her devotion to the less fortunate, and her poetry, though she believed she did not have much talent in that pursuit. But her legacy was primarily scientific. As Gabriella Berti Logan wrote in American Historical Review, "What made Bassi unique was that she made use of rewards, that would normally have remained symbolic, to carve out a position for herself in the scientific community of her town and to contribute to its intellectual life through her research and teaching."
Further Reading on Laura Bassi
Dictionary of Scientific Biography, volume twelve, edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.
The Macmillan Dictionary of Women's Biography, second edition, edited by Jennifer Uglow, Macmillan Reference Books, 1989.
Morse, Mary, Women Changing Science: Voices from a Field in Transition, Insight Books, 1995.
Mozans, H.J., Woman in Science, University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.
Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey, Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1986.
The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science, Harvard University Press, 1989.
Yount, Lisa, A to Z of Women in Science and Math, Facts on File, Inc., 1999.
American Historical Review, June 1994.
Isis, September 1991, p. 510; September 1993, p. 441.