Laura Bassi

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Laura Bassi
Laura Bassi.jpg
Born (1711-10-31)October 31, 1711
Bologna, Papal States
Died February 20, 1778(1778-02-20) (aged 66)
Bologna, Papal States
Nationality Italian
Fields Physics
Institutions University of Bologna
Alma mater University of Bologna
Known for First female university professor of Europe
Influenced Marie François Xavier Bichat

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (31 October 1711 – 20 February 1778) was an Italian physicist and academic, recognized as the first woman in the world to earn a university chair in a scientific field of studies. She received a doctoral degree from the University of Bologna in May 1732,[1] the third academic qualification ever bestowed on a woman by a university,[2] and the first woman to earn a professorship in physics at a university in Europe.[3] She was the first woman to be offered an official teaching position at a university in Europe.[2]


Portrait of Laura Bassi at the University of Bologna.

Born in Bologna, although not born into nobility,[4] she was born into the wealthy family of a lawyer. She was privately educated and tutored for seven years in her teens by Gaetano Tacconi, a University teacher of Biology, Natural History and Medicine. She came to the attention of Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, later to become Pope Benedict XIV, who encouraged her scientific work.

In 1732, at the age of 21, she was appointed professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna, was elected to the Academy of the Institute for Sciences, and in the following year was given the chair of philosophy. Thus, Bassi became the second woman in the world to earn a Philosophy doctorate after Elena Cornaro Piscopia in 1678, fifty-four years prior.[4] In her early years, her teaching opportunities were restricted to occasional lectures. The painter Domenico Maria Fratta and engraver Antonio Lazzari designed and struck a bronze medal with her image on it to commemorate her first classes.[5]

The defense of her degree, awarding ceremony, and first lecture in 1732 were significant as they took place in the Palazzo Pubblico, one of the most important government buildings in Bologna.[2] These events were attended by "not only the university faculty and students, but also by principal political and religious figures of the city – the Papal Legate and Vice-Legate, the Archbishop of Bologna, the Gonfaloniere, the Elders, senators and magistrates. Additionally, 'all the ladies of Bologna and all the nobility'."[2] The Bologna community came to recognize the achievements of Bassi earning and receiving her degree.

The Senate expected Bassi to attend various events, because she was a political figure. The Carnival Anatomy, a public dissection with tickets open to anyone, was an event she was expected to attend because it was a central feature of public life at the University which attracted the attention of many foreigners and important community members. She began attending this event annually in 1734.[2]

In 1738, she married Giuseppe Veratti, a fellow academic with whom she had twelve children.[6] Five of her children survived.[5] After this, she was able to lecture from home on a regular basis and successfully petitioned the University for more responsibility and a higher salary to allow her to purchase her own equipment. Bassi earned the highest salary paid by the University of Bologna, equal to that paid to the anatomist Domenico Galeazzi, 1,200 lire.[5]

One of her principal patrons was Pope Benedict XIV. He supported less censorship of scholarly work, such as happened with Galileo, and he supported women figures in learning, including Agnesi.[2] He continually supported the University of Bologna and intervened when other members of this Institute tried segregate Bassi from the rest of the members, who were predominately male. Apart from the Institute, Pope Benedict XIV also expanded his scientific reforms to the entirety of Italy, which he did so by including women in educational scientific programs. Bassi was the first woman whom he extended this reformational participation to.[7]

She was mainly interested in Newtonian physics and taught courses on the subject for 28 years. She was one of the key figures in introducing Newton's ideas of physics and natural philosophy to Italy. She also carried out experiments of her own in all aspects of physics. In order to teach Newtonian physics and Franklinian electricity, topics that were not focused in the university curriculum, Bassi gave private lessons.[8] In her lifetime, she authored 28 papers, the vast majority of these on physics and hydraulics, though she did not write any books. She published only four of her papers.[2] Although only a limited number of her scientific works were left behind, much of her scientific impact is evident through her many correspondents including Voltaire, Cesare Beccaria, Francesco Algarotti, Roger Boscovich, Charles Bonnet, Jean Antoine Nollet, Paolo Frisi, Lazzaro Spallanzani and Alessandro Volta. Voltaire once wrote to her saying "There is no Bassi in London, and I would be much happier to be added to your Academy of Bologna than that of the English, even though it has produced a Newton".[2] Francesco Algarotti wrote several poems regarding her degree ceremonies.[2]

In 1745, Lambertini (now Pope Benedict XIV) established an elite group of 25 scholars known as the Benedettini ("Benedictines", named after himself.) Bassi pressed hard to be appointed to this group, but there was a mixed reaction from the other academics. Ultimately, Benedict did appoint her, the only woman in the group.

From 1746 to 1777 she gave one formal dissertation per year.[2]

In 1749, she presented a dissertation on the problem of gravity.[2]

During the 1760s, Bassi and her husband worked together on experimental research in electricity. This attracted talent of Abbé Nollet and others to Bologna to study electricity.[2]

In 1776, at the age of 65, she was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Bologna Institute of Sciences, with her husband as a teaching assistant.[1] Two years later, she died, having made physics into a lifelong career and broken a huge amount of ground for women in academic circles.

After her death, a marble statue was made in her memory and placed above the Nautical room in the institute.[2]

She was elected member of many literary societies and carried on an extensive correspondence with the most eminent European men of letters. She was well acquainted with classical literature, as well as with that of France and Italy.[6]

Honours and awards[edit]

A 31 km crater on Venus[9] honours her name, along with a high school (language, social sciences and music) and a city street in Bologna.


Bassi only published four works in her lifetime:[2]

  • Miscellanea (1732) [digital edition (2003): The International Center for the History of Universities and Science (CIS), University of Bologna]
  • de aeris compression (1745)
  • de problemate quodam hydrometrico and de problemate quodam mechanico (1757)
  • de immixto fluidis aere (1792)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Laura Bassi". MacTutor Biography. University of St Andrews. Retrieved 30 January 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Findlen, Paula. "Science As a Career In Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies οf Laura Bassi." Isis 84 (1993): 440–469. History of Science, Technology & Medicine. Web. 3 June 2013."
  3. ^ "Laura Bassi". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 30 October 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Monique Frize, Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe: The Extraordinary Life and Role of Italy's Pioneering Female Professor, Springer, p. 174.
  5. ^ a b c Elena, Alberto (1991). "'In lode della filosofessa di Bologna': An Introduction to Laura Bassi". History of Science Society. JSTOR 233228. 
  6. ^ a b Chisholm 1911.
  7. ^ Findlen, Paula (1993). "Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi". Chicago Journals. University of Chicago Press. 84: 441–446. JSTOR 235642. 
  8. ^ Logan, Gabriella Berti. Women and the Practice and Teaching of Medicine in Bologna in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries". Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77.3 (2003): 506–535. History of Science, Technology & Medicine. Web. 3 June 2013.
  9. ^ Venus Crater Database: Bassi


  • A Physicist Supported by the Church
  • Sunshine for Women
  • Résumé at the Wayback Machine (archived 20 November 2002)
  • Findlen, Paula. "Science As A Career In Enlightenment Italy : The Strategies Of Laura Bassi." Isis 84. (1993): 440–469. History of Science, Technology & Medicine. Web. 3 June 2013.
  • Frize, Monique. "Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe. The extraordinary life and role of Italy's pioneering female professor." Springer 2013.
  • Logan, Gabriella Berti. "Women And The Practice And Teaching Of Medicine In Bologna In The Eighteenth And Early Nineteenth Centuries." Bulletin Of The History Of Medicine 77.3 (2003): 506–535. History of Science, Technology & Medicine. Web. 3 June 2013.
  • Logan, Gabriella Berti. "The Desire To Contribute : An Eighteenth-Century Italian Woman Of Science." American Historical Review 99.3 (1994): 785–812. History of Science, Technology & Medicine. Web. 3 June 2013.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]