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Laura Bassi: A Trailblazer for Women in Science

By Ernest Davis

Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe: The Extraordinary Life and Role of Italy’s Pioneering Female Professor. By Monique Frize. Courtesy of Springer.
Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe: The Extraordinary Life and Role of Italy’s Pioneering Female Professor. By Monique Frize. Springer, New York, NY, July 2013. 216 pages, $39.99.

In 1732, much excitement surrounded a doctoral thesis defense by a brilliant 20-year-old prodigy at the University of Bologna. An enormous crowd—including many of the leading figures in Bologna and the surrounding areas, two cardinals, and an archbishop—attended the event. After a successful defense, the candidate received the symbols of the degree—a book, a ring, a silver crown of laurels, and an ermine mantle—and an appointment as lecturer, with an annual stipend of 500 lire. Commemorative medals were struck in silver and pewter, and three volumes of poetry were published in her honor.

In her honor; that was the astonishing part. The candidate was Laura Bassi, the second woman ever (after Elena Piscopia in 1678) to earn a Ph.D. and an overall trailblazer for women in science and higher education. Bassi subsequently became the first woman appointed as a university professor and the first female member of a scientific academy (she was ultimately a member of 14 academies). Her life, accomplishments, social context, and scientific setting are the subject of a fascinating biography entitled Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe by Monique Frize, herself a distinguished bioengineer at the University of Ottawa.

Italy, particularly Bologna, was centuries ahead of the rest of the world in recognizing female scientists. Germany first awarded a Ph.D. to a woman in 1787, followed by the U.S. in 1877 and France in 1903 (Marie Curie). The U.S. appointed its first female college professor in 1871; Britain did so in 1904, France in 1906 (Curie again), and Germany in 1923. The U.S.-based National Academy of Sciences admitted its inaugural female member in 1925, trailed by the Royal Society in Britain in 1945 and France’s Académie des Sciences in 1979.

A decades-long debate on the proper role and education of women persisted in late 17th- and early 18th-century Italian intellectual circles. Polemics were written and public discussions held on the topic. At one end were extreme misogynists, who believed that (i) women were intellectually and morally inferior, (ii) their education beyond household duties was futile, and (iii) fathers and husbands should confine daughters and wives to their proper sphere. At the other end were people (predominantly female) who argued that properly-educated women were equal or superior to men in all respects.1 Conventional wisdom (at least among males) took a middle ground and concluded that women were mostly inferior to men. One might educate them or not, as deemed appropriate, but should certainly keep expectations realistic. However, a small number of “exceptional” women were presumed to be equal to men; these women were celebrated and even elevated to a certain degree. Advocates of this point of view enjoyed making lists of exceptional women throughout history.

From this standpoint, Laura Bassi deserved a place on these lists. Her father was a lawyer; he was neither aristocratic nor rich but somewhat well-connected. Bassi was educated at home, where she learned Latin, French, Greek, mathematics, Aristotelian and Cartesian philosophy, and Newtonian physics (later in life she also learned English). Her remarkable intelligence, abilities, and extremely impressive persona became widely known in and beyond Bologna. When she was ready, her doctoral defense took place, with all the attendant pomp and circumstance.

From the city’s perspective, this was a celebration of the fact that a daughter of Bologna had emerged as an exceptional woman. Bassi’s defense was actually a public relations stunt on behalf of the city and university, both of which had declined in status from their former greatness. Then again, what a society chooses to celebrate reflects—if not its actual values—at least the values to which it aspires.

Yet even after the excitement of her doctoral defense, the cards were stacked against Bassi actually pursuing a career in science. Despite her salaried appointment, she was not allowed to lecture at the university. Instead, she was expected to dedicate herself to literature—writing verse for public occasions and such—as literature was supposedly more suitable than science for feminine talent. Any interactions with male colleagues inevitably raised eyebrows.

But Bassi played her cards patiently and ably. She also had some powerful supporters, particularly Pope Benedict XIV. Bassi married scientist Giuseppe Veratti in 1738, which made it possible for her to participate in otherwise-male scientific gatherings (this disappointed those who felt that exceptional women should devote themselves to higher things, rather than personal relationships). Though she was not allowed to lecture at the university, she and Veratti taught students at their own home. 18th-century laboratory equipment was expensive, but Bassi and Veratti gradually built up one of the best laboratories in Italy.

In 1745, Benedict XIV created an elite group of 24 scientists at Bologna called the Bennedetina, after himself. Bassi persuaded him to add her as a 25th member, which established her position as a scientist and allowed her to focus on scientific research and teaching. She corresponded with the scientific savants of Italy and beyond, including the young Alessandro Volta. Bassi’s fame spread rapidly throughout Europe; Voltaire wrote her a flattering letter and poets penned poems in her praise. She is believed to have had between nine and 12 children, five of whom survived infancy.

In 1776, Bassi was appointed to the chair of experimental physics at Bologna, a position that finally permitted her to teach public classes at the university. Her husband was selected as her teaching assistant. This arrangement continued until her death in 1778.

Major gaps exist in our knowledge of Bassi’s actual scientific work. She published few articles and no books. Between 1746 and 1777, she presented 31 dissertations describing her research at Bologna, but most of her manuscripts—which were deposited with the university—have been lost; only the titles remain. Yet the enduring records and evidence of her correspondence prove that Bassi was a leading figure in the emerging study of electricity. She also conducted work in hydrodynamics, flames, and the regeneration of salamander body parts, and played a role in the victory of Newtonian over Cartesian physics.

In the decades after Bassi’s death, the position of women in Italian universities deteriorated. The popes who succeeded Benedict XIV were not supportive of female education. In the wake of Napoleon’s conquest, Italian universities—and Bologna in particular—were modernized and reformed with inimical changes for women. Between 1803 and 1874, the nation’s universities were largely closed to women, with a partial exception for medical training. Bassi and the other Italian female scientists of her time—mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi, artist and anatomist Anna Morandi Manzolini, and physicist Cristina Roccati—were in some ways a false dawn. Nonetheless, their dedication to science and courage in breaking the glass ceiling of their time are important historical milestones.

1 Notable Italian mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi wrote a tract on the subject when she was 11 years old. Giovanni Antonio Volpi, a misogynist who was apparently open-minded, published both this and another feminist essay as supplements to his own treatise in 1729.

Ernest Davis is a professor of computer science at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

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