The entrance of women into the sciences has been a long process beginning several centuries ago. It’s not easy to find these women in the 18th century, but those that made a name for themselves did so because they were far from ordinary. Admittance into this formerly all male club seems to have begun in Italy (at least post-Renaissance), specifically the University of Bologna where Laura Bassi became the first woman professor of physics in Europe.
Born November 29, 1711, Laura Bassi was the only child in her family to survive to adulthood. As with many (maybe most) scientifically inclined women prior to the 20th century, she received an education because her father recognized her ability and brought tutors into their home. This was a privilege reserved for the well-to-do, if not exclusively for the aristocracy. Bassi’s father was a successful lawyer, but the family was not of the nobility.
From the age of five Laura was instructed in French, Latin, and mathematics by a cousin, and later by the family physician in philosophy, natural philosophy, metaphysics, and logic. Her abilities were known throughout the city attracting attention of people who would visit her home to meet her. Similar to the salons in France, the intellectual elite in Italy would gather in homes to discuss philosophy, literature, science, mathematics, etc. Laura seems to have been put on display in her home in much the same way Maria Agnesi was.
In 1732, in a public debate Laura presented and defended her ideas regarding Newton and the new physics. She was awarded her doctorate and offered a position teaching at the University of Bologna. This required another public examination where she was successful, becoming the first woman professor of physics in a European University. As with Maria Agnesi, there is disagreement among scholars as to the extent of her teaching responsibilities. Some think that she was limited to occasional lectures, others believe she had a full teaching load. It seems to be a matter of propriety. Lectures in public would attract both women and men, but teaching at the university would usually entail being alone in a classroom with all male students.
This situation was relieved when in 1738 she married Giovanni Guiseppe Veratti, a fellow scientist and professor. As a married woman, the university made allowances for Bassi to lecture in her home. Bassi and her husband had eight to twelve children. There is disagreement on the number of children, but baptismal records seem to support eight, five of whom survived to adulthood. Laura and her husband shared a love of science, created a laboratory in their home, and performed experiments together. Teaching from her home gave her more flexibility to perform experiments and to choose which topics she taught.
During her examination for her professorship, she attracted the attention of Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (later Pope Benedict XIV) who was impressed and extended his support to Laura in her studies. In 1745, he appointed her to an elite group of scholars known as the Benedettini in which she was the only woman. Originally intended to be a group of 24, Lambertini met with resistance when he wanted to appoint Bassi to one of the positions. He then added a twenty-fifth position for her. After Bassi’s death this seat remained vacant until the 1800s. The purpose of the Benedettini was to encourage scientific advancement in Italy. Each member was responsible for writing and presenting a paper to the pope each year. Lambertini also arranged for Bassi to have access to scholarly documents in the Vatican which were usually restricted to male scientists over the age of 24
The scientific community was small in Europe at the time and Bassi communicated with leading scientists. She appears to have been instrumental in getting Voltaire admitted to the Academy of Sciences at Bologna and I’m sure through him she would have been familiar with Emilie du Chatelet’s works on mathematics and physics. At the beginning of her career, Newton’s ideas were still new and somewhat controversial and it’s easy to believe that she may have had a hand in introducing them to Italy. Bassi’s surviving papers however, are related to compression of air, hydraulics, a couple of dissertations on mathematics, and later electricity.
Bassi took on additional teaching positions later in her life. In 1766, she assumed a position teaching physics for the Collegio Montalto, a free seminary where students were taught in professor’s homes and earned degrees in theology or law. In 1776, Bassi’s husband was an assistant to Paola Battista Balbi the Chair and Institute Professor of Experimental Physics when Balbi died leaving a vacancy. Although her husband would have been the obvious choice, Bassi petitioned to be considered for the post. It seems that her skills in mathematics made her a more logical choice and she received the appointment. When Bassi died two years later, her husband took the post and was later succeeded by their son Paolo keeping it in the family until 1796.
I had never taken notice of Laura Bassi until recently. She doesn’t appear at all in several books I have on women in science and math and where she does appear it is cursory. I’m not sure why, because she had a life long career in science. It could be because she didn’t publish major works that were accessible to a lay person. Her works were scholarly and original. Unlike Agnesi, who went on to do work among the poor and destitute after the death of her father, even though she was concerned for the poor, it wasn’t Bassi’s primary focus. And of course, Emilie Du Chatelet was a scientist, but also the lover of a famous man, Voltaire, and we all seem to love to hear about a scandalous woman. Regardless of the reason, we should take note of Laura Bassi. She had tremendous staying power, a long career in a man’s field, and she raised a family. Sounds like something that many contemporary women are trying to do and would be inspired by.
Oh and she has a crater on Venus named for her – what more could you ask from a woman!
Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie
Women in Science by H. J. Mozans