Women You Missed in History Class: Laura Bassi

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Laura Bassi (1711-1778)

18th century Europe was a pretty good place to be a scientist.  The scientific revolution had brought about huge advances in physics, astronomy, biology, and medicine.  The Age of Enlightenment was sweeping across the continent producing great thinkers, writers, and inventors.  This was the environment in which Laura Bassi, the first female professional scientist, grew up and lived her life.  The exact date of her birth is uncertain, but she was born in 1711 in Bologna, Italy.  Her father, a wealthy lawyer, recognized his young daughter’s academic gifts and hired a private tutor for her.  For seven years, Bassi studied with Gaetano Tacconi, a friend of the family and prominent professor at the University of Bologna.  Tacconi was able to introduce Bassi to some of the most prominent minds of the time, including Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, who spread word of Bassi’s intelligence.  Bassi was particularly interested in Newtonian science, and became a subject of some fascination as a woman who understood Newton, especially given that few men at the time were able to understand Newton.

On April 17, 1732, a 21-year-old Bassi stood before four University of Bologna professors in the Palazzo Pubblico and publicly defended her thesis, which showed the influence of Newton’s work on optics and light.  At the time, it was customary for students to defend their theses in the churches before educated clergy, but because Bassi had become famous in Bologna for her intelligence and scientific achievements, her thesis defense was made public.  She was awarded a doctorate of philosophy, making her only the second woman in the world to earn a PhD.  When she earned her PhD, Bologna celebrated her tremendous accomplishment with public celebrations in the streets and collections of poetry published in Bassi’s honor.

That same year, Bassi was offered a position at the University of Bologna, making her the world’s first female physics professor.  She gave her first lecture on the properties of water, but as a woman, she was not allowed to lecture in the university.  Instead, she began conducting lectures and research in her home, which became a laboratory for her students.  She hosted some of the most prominent scientists of the time, including Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electric battery.  Bassi was also an early advocate of equal pay for women.  As her fame and contributions to the university grew, she petitioned for regular pay raises, eventually earning the highest salary in the university of 1,200 lire.  She used her extra pay to buy more advanced equipment for her students in her home laboratory.

In 1776, she was appointed chair of experimental physics at the University of Bologna, a position she held for only two years until her death in 1778.  She was the first woman to hold such a position.  Over the course of her career, she wrote or co-authored 28 papers, mostly on physics and hydraulics.  She played a crucial role in spreading Newtonian physics through Italy and made enormous scientific contributions, but today her name is not well known outside of the world of physics.  And that’s really a shame, because this trailblazing female scientist is a role model for smart girls everywhere.

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