Laura Bassi - 18th century Minerva

In April 1732, the hottest event was not a play, a concert, or an Opera. Instead, it was a mundane event, a length defence of thesis, in Latin. Such an event was commonplace. In this instance the defender was a 21-year-old child prodigy from the middle class, who was already famous throughout Italy for proficiency in languages, composition, science, and philosophy. A routine event, except the defender happened to be a woman.

In 21st century Europe, fewer than 40% of university professors are female. In the 1730s, there was only one. Laura Maria Caterina Bassi Veratti (Laura Bassi) was an Italian physicist in an age where the woman's place was in the home, out of the public eye. She was the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Science, the first salaried female teacher at a university and the first member of any scientific establishment. She was also the second woman in the world to earn a Doctor of Philosophy. Her achievements did not come easy, she worked hard for them and yet still faced doubt from those around her. A keen physicist, mathematician, and advocate for Newtonian Physics, Laura Bassi was a pioneer for all women in academics, particularly those in STEM.

Laura Bassi, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Born October 31, 1711, in Bologna, Italy, Laura Bassi was by no doubt a child prodigy. As a child she was taught Latin and French, languages in which she became highly proficient. From age 13 she was educated by Gaetano Tacconi, her family's doctor and a lecturer in Medicine and Philosophy. Tacconi recognised Bassi's brilliance and, in 1731, he invited philosophers from various Universities and Prospero Cardinal Lambertini (later Pope Benedict XIV) to evaluate Bassi's progress. The observers were impressed, in particular Lambertine who became her life-long patron.

Laura Bassi with a crown of laurels indicative of her graduate status. To this day, students in Italy are often gifted a laurel crown by friends and family upon their graduation. Photo Credit — Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio, Bologna

As a result, in 1732, Lambertini organised a series of public events centred around Bassi. Consequently, on March 20, 1732, Laura Bassi was admitted to the Academy Institute of Sciences. Her membership was an honorary one, however, it also made Bassi the first female to be admitted to any academy of sciences. Her trailblazing did not end there though. That same year, on April 17, Bassi participated in a public debate against four professors from the University of Bologna. During the debate Bassi, only 20-years-old, publicly defended 49 theses successfully, therefore on May 12, 1732, she became the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in science, and the second woman to receive a Doctor of Philosophy. Following this achievement Bassi became famous as the Bolognese Minerva, after the Roman Goddess of Wisdom. However, Bassi drifted apart from her childhood tutor, since Bassi discovered an interest in Newtonian physics whereas Tacconi wanted her to focus on the less controversial Cartesian teachings. In 1738 Laura Bassi married Giuseppe Veratti, a Doctor of Medicine and anatomy lecturer at the University of Bologna. Together they had eight children, two of which went on to become professors as well.

An Artists depiction of Laura Bassi pictured with books and scientific drawings.

Bassi did not confine her life to motherhood, following the achievement of her doctorates she then set her sights on a teaching position at the University of Bologna. On 27 June 1732, she defended 12 theses as part of her petition to be allowed to teach. She covered numerous subjects such as chemistry, physics, hydraulics, and mathematics. Consequently, she was appointed professor of Natural Philosophy (an honorary position). This appointment made Laura Bassi the first salaried female lecturer in the world. Her first lecture was 'Water as a natural element of all other bodies' (In Latin, De aqua corpore naturali elemento aliorum corporum parte universi). However, the University still believed that women lead private lives thus Bassi was more restricted from public lectures than her male colleagues. In 1739 she pleaded for normal teaching duty, a request supported by Lambertini, but this was denied. Nevertheless, she was permitted to begin private lessons. In 1759, she was also granted funding to conduct experiments at home thus avoiding some of the constraints of the University and allowing her to explore innovative ideas.

A Portrait of Laura Bassi with a laurel crown

Bassi fought for equal teaching rights, but to no avail. From 1746-77 she gave only one formal dissertation per year on topics ranging from gravity to electricity. She was, however, expected to attend several events on behalf of the University as she was considered a symbol and political figure. This included the Carnival Anatomy - a public dissection - which Bassi attended annually from 1734 onwards. However, in 1772 Paolo Balbi - professor of experimental physics - died. Bassi's husband had been assistant to Balbi, and Bassi felt she could fill the role. Her appointment was approved and in 1776, Bassi was appointed Chair of Experimental physics whilst her husband, Veratti, performed as her teaching assistant. Bassi's and Veratti's work on electricity drew the attention of others to study the subject. Equally, she also drew attention to Newtonian physics. Bassi had a major interest in the work of Isaac Newton and was key in introducing Newton's ideas to Italy. She taught courses on the subject for 28 years. As a consequence of the restrictions placed on her by the University, most of Bassi's lessons were private. Nevertheless, in a way this benefitted Bassi as Newtonian Physics and Franklinian electricity were not on the university curriculum, thus through private lessons she was able to teach such topics. Her position as Chair of Experimental physics was a genuine achievement but it was short lived as Bassi died two years later in 1778.

Laura Bassi took considerable interest in the work of Isaac Newton - including his work on gravity and light. Here Newton is surrounded by symbols of his greatest findings. Illustration by Jean-Leon Huens, National Geographic Stock.

Her patron, Prospero Cardinal Lambertini, became Archbishop of Bologna in 1731, and later Pope Benedict XIV, was a lifelong supporter of her academics, and demonstrates that she had friends in high places. Indeed, in 1745, whilst Bassi was working at the University, Lambertini (now Pope) established the Benedettini, an elite group of 25 scholars. Bassi pressed her long-time patron to be appointed to the Benedettini. Although there was some resistance, she was admitted as an additional member although, given she was a woman, she was not permitted any voting rights.

Pope Benedict XIV (Prospero Cardinal Lambertini) was a lifelong patron of Laura Bassi. Oil painting by Pierre Subleyras (1741)

Her academic restrictions limited her work, she authored 28 papers (mostly concerning physics and hydraulics) although only 4 were printed, and she did not publish any books. Likewise, her gender also presented barriers at every opportunity she faced. Nevertheless, it would take a fool to consider her a failure. In 1755, she was earning one of the highest salaries at the University of Bologna. Voltaire, the famous French philosopher, once wrote to Bassi that 'there is no Bassi in London and I would be much happier to be added to you Academy of Bologna than that of the English, even though it has produced a Newton'. Laura Bassi was certainly held in high esteem by those around her.

Laura Bassi - the first woman to be offered an official teaching position at a European university. Courtesy of Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio

On 20 February 1778, at the age of 66, Laura Maria Caterina Bassi Veratti died, most likely from a heart attack. Her funeral was held at the Church of Corpus Domini, Bologna. The Benedettini paid tribute, and silver laurels were placed on her head - a symbol of her academic achievements. To this day, there are streets named after her in Italy and a Marble statue was created following her death and placed in the Nautical room of the Institute. More recently, in 1991 a 31km crater on Venus was named Bassi, in her honours. In 2019, an Icebreaker research ship was acquired by Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale (National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics) and was renamed Laura Bassi. She is becoming increasingly recognised for her outstanding achievements in academics. Laura Bassi paved the way for women in academics - undergraduates, masters students, PhD students and professors alike, all owe something to Laura Bassi, the 18th century Minerva.

Icebreaker research ship Laura Bassi

Click for Reading List

Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi by Paula Findlen.

Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe - lecture by Monique Frize.

Anna Morandi’s Wax Self-Portrait with Brain by Rebecca Messbarger.

The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-Century Italian Woman of Science by Gabriella Berti Logan.