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Leading the way for female academics
Name: Laura Maria Caterina Bassi
Fields: Experimental physics, Newtonian theory and electricity
Claim to fame: First woman to officially teach in a European university
After Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia became the first woman to receive a doctorate, in 1678, Italian academia began, very slowly, to accept women in its midst. In 1732, another Italian woman, Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (1711-1778), became the second to be awarded a doctorate and went on to be the first woman to teach in a European university. Bassi’s lifelong scientific career had a profound influence on Italian science in the 18th century.
Born in Bologna on 31 October 1711, Laura Maria Caterina Bassi was the only one of her parent’s children to survive into adulthood. The family was a wealthy one and Bassi’s lawyer father paid for his daughter to be privately educated. Between the ages of 13 and 20, Bassi was tutored by Gaetano Tacconi, the family’s physician and a professor at the University of Bologna, who taught her philosophy and metaphysics. Tacconi recognised her prodigious talent and decided to promote it in Bologna’s academic circles.
Bassi quickly came to be noticed by Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (later Pope Benedict XIV) who had returned to the city of his birth in 1731 as Archbishop of Bologna. The Cardinal, who had himself studied science in his youth, encouraged Bassi in her scientific work and became her most influential patron. In 1732, Lambertini persuaded Bassi to participate in public debates and cast her in the role of symbol for the scientific and cultural regeneration of the city.
At the age of only 20, Bassi was given a teaching position at the University of Bologna, the oldest university in Europe. This was a radical step as it made her the first woman to officially teach at a European university. Her doctorate, only the second ever awarded to a woman, was conferred on her at a lavish public ceremony, at which she was also presented with an ermine cape, a jewelencrusted silver crown of laurels and a ring.
A commemorative medal was struck in her honour. Despite this public veneration and her appointment to a chair of philosophy two years later, Bassi’s teaching opportunities were few at this stage in her career. It was deemed improper for her to teach a room full of male students and so she gave only occasional lectures at public events to which women were invited.
As a result of her unique position, Bassi’s name became widely known in academic circles and one biographer notes that “no scholar would pass through Bologna without being eager for her learned conversation”. Her correspondents included the French philosopher Voltaire and during 1744-5 she helped him to become a member of the Bologna Academy of Science.
At around the same time, Pope Benedict XIV established an elite group of 25 scholars, known as the Benedettini (the Benedictines, named after the Pope). Bassi lobbied fervently to be appointed a member of the group, whose members greeted this with mixed reactions. Eventually, her efforts paid off and the Pope admitted her. This not only supplemented her income, but expanded her opportunities for collaboration and to share her work: from 1746 until two years before her death, Bassi gave annual presentations to the Benedictine academy.
During the second half of her life, Bassi was renowned in scientific circles for her ability to teach experimental physics and for her work in areas including mechanics, hydrometry, elasticity and other properties of gases. She also continued to contribute to debates on electricity. In 1776, at the age of 65, Bassi was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Institute of Sciences, with her husband as her official teaching assistant. She died two years later, on 20 February 1778, bringing to a close a lifelong career in physics which was groundbreaking for women in academia.
Bassi is remembered largely for being the first woman to officially teach at a university in Europe, but she was also pioneering in the subjects that she chose to teach. Her main interest was in the work of the English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton and she was one of the first scholars to teach Newtonian natural philosophy in Italy. This world-view holds that the forces of nature obey natural laws that can be quantified, predicted and, at times, controlled, as opposed to the view that nature is subject to supernatural forces. Bassi taught courses on Newtonian physics for 28 years, a pursuit which made her a key figure in introducing Newton’s ideas of physics and natural philosophy to Italy.
Throughout her career, Bassi conducted research in a variety of scientific fields. She published 28 papers in all, the vast majority of which were on physics and hydraulics. Whilst none of her scientific works brought significant new advances, her career was important for the positions and respect she attained. As Gabriella Berti Logan wrote in the 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.”