How Italian Physicist Laura Bassi Became the First Woman to Have an Academic Career in the 18th Century

The prac­tice and priv­i­lege of aca­d­e­m­ic sci­ence has been slow in trick­ling down from its ori­gins as a pur­suit of leisured gen­tle­man. While many a leisured lady may have tak­en an inter­est in sci­ence, math, or phi­los­o­phy, most women were denied par­tic­i­pa­tion in aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions and schol­ar­ly soci­eties dur­ing the sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion of the 1700s. Only a hand­ful of women — sev­en known in total — were grant­ed doc­tor­al degrees before the year 1800. It wasn’t until 1678 that a female schol­ar was giv­en the dis­tinc­tion, some four cen­turies or so after the doc­tor­ate came into being. While sev­er­al intel­lec­tu­als and even cler­ics of the time held pro­gres­sive atti­tudes about gen­der and edu­ca­tion, they were a decid­ed minor­i­ty.

Curi­ous­ly, four of the first sev­en women to earn doc­tor­al degrees were from Italy, begin­ning with Ele­na Cornaro Pis­copia at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pad­ua. Next came Lau­ra Bassi, who earned her degree from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bologna in 1732. There she dis­tin­guished her­self in physics, math­e­mat­ics, and nat­ur­al phi­los­o­phy and became the first salaried woman to teach at a uni­ver­si­ty (she was at one time the university’s high­est paid employ­ee). Bassi was the chief pop­u­lar­iz­er of New­ton­ian physics in Italy in the 18th cen­tu­ry and enjoyed sig­nif­i­cant sup­port from the Arch­bish­op of Bologna, Pros­pero Lam­ber­ti­ni, who — when he became Pope Bene­dict XIV — elect­ed her as the 24th mem­ber of an elite sci­en­tif­ic soci­ety called the Benedet­ti­ni.

“Bassi was wide­ly admired as an excel­lent exper­i­menter and one of the best teach­ers of New­ton­ian physics of her gen­er­a­tion,” says Paula Find­len, Stan­ford pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry. “She inspired some of the most impor­tant male sci­en­tists of the next gen­er­a­tion while also serv­ing as a pub­lic exam­ple of a woman shap­ing the nature of knowl­edge in an era in which few women could imag­ine play­ing such a role.” She also played the role avail­able to most women of the time as a moth­er of eight and wife of Giuseppe Ver­at­ti, also a sci­en­tist.

Bassi was not allowed to teach class­es of men at the uni­ver­si­ty — only spe­cial lec­tures open to the pub­lic. But in 1740, she was grant­ed per­mis­sion to lec­ture at her home, and her fame spread, as Find­len writes at Physics World:

 Bassi was wide­ly known through­out Europe, and as far away as Amer­i­ca, as the woman who under­stood New­ton. The insti­tu­tion­al recog­ni­tion that she received, how­ev­er, made her the emblem­at­ic female sci­en­tist of her gen­er­a­tion. A uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate, salaried pro­fes­sor and aca­d­e­mi­cian (a mem­ber of a pres­ti­gious acad­e­my), Bassi may well have been the first woman to have embarked upon a full-fledged sci­en­tif­ic career.

Poems were writ­ten about Bassi’s suc­cess­es in demon­strat­ing New­ton­ian optics; “news of her accom­plish­ments trav­eled far and wide,” reach­ing the ear of Ben­jamin Franklin, whose work with elec­tric­i­ty Bassi fol­lowed keen­ly. In Bologna, sur­prise at Bassi’s achieve­ments was tem­pered by a cul­ture known for “cel­e­brat­ing female suc­cess.” Indeed, the city was “jok­ing­ly known as a ‘par­adise for women,’” writes Find­len. Bassi’s father was deter­mined that she have an edu­ca­tion equal to any of her class, and her fam­i­ly inher­it­ed mon­ey that had been equal­ly divid­ed between daugh­ters and sons for gen­er­a­tions; her sons “found them­selves heirs to the prop­er­ty that came to the fam­i­ly through Laura’s mater­nal line,” notes the Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty col­lec­tion of Bassi’s per­son­al papers.

Bassi’s aca­d­e­m­ic work is held at the Acad­e­my of Sci­ences in Bologna. Of the papers that sur­vive, “thir­teen are on physics, eleven are on hydraulics, two are on math­e­mat­ics, one is on mechan­ics, one is on tech­nol­o­gy, and one is on chem­istry,” writes a Uni­ver­si­ty of St. Andrew’s biog­ra­phy. In 1776, a year usu­al­ly remem­bered for the for­ma­tion of a gov­ern­ment of leisured men across the Atlantic, Bassi was appoint­ed to the Chair of Exper­i­men­tal Physics at Bologna, an appoint­ment that not only meant her hus­band became her assis­tant, but also that she became the “first woman appoint­ed to a chair of physics at any uni­ver­si­ty in the world.”

Bologna was proud of its dis­tin­guished daugh­ter, but per­haps still thought of her as an odd­i­ty and a token. As Dr. Eleono­ra Ada­mi notes in a charm­ing biog­ra­phy at sci-fi illus­trat­ed sto­ries, the city once struck a medal in her hon­or, “com­mem­o­rat­ing her first lec­ture series with the phrase ‘Soli cui fas vidisse Min­er­vam,’” which trans­lates rough­ly to “the only one allowed to see Min­er­va.” But her exam­ple inspired oth­er women, like Cristi­na Roc­cati, who earned a doc­tor­ate from Bologna in 1750, and Dorothea Erxleben, who became the first woman to earn a Doc­tor­ate in Med­i­cine four years lat­er at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Halle. Such sin­gu­lar suc­cess­es did not change the patri­ar­chal cul­ture of acad­e­mia, but they start­ed the trick­le that would in time become sev­er­al branch­ing streams of women suc­ceed­ing in the sci­ences.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences

Joce­lyn Bell Bur­nell Changed Astron­o­my For­ev­er; Her Ph.D. Advi­sor Won the Nobel Prize for It

Women Sci­en­tists Launch a Data­base Fea­tur­ing the Work of 9,000 Women Work­ing in the Sci­ences

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

The Lit­tle-Known Female Sci­en­tists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Cen­tu­ry Ago: An Intro­duc­tion to the “Har­vard Com­put­ers”

Real Women Talk About Their Careers in Sci­ence

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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