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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Water, Fire, and Lightning: The Life of Laura Bassi, the First Woman Professor of Science.

It's April of 1732, and the hot ticket in Bologna is not an opera, a play, or a beheading, but rather that most mundane of things: a lengthy thesis defense, in Latin. Routine stuff, except this time the defender is a twenty-one year old prodigy from the middle class already famous throughout Italy for a sure mastery of languages, composition, science, and philosophy who, by the by, also happened to be a woman.

Italy had seen women defend doctoral theses before, and had a rich (relatively speaking) tradition of women scientists by the time Bassi took the stage in 1732. Bittisia Gozzadini (1209-1261) had received a degree in the Middle Ages and Trota of Salerno (12th Century) was widely respected as a medical practitioner, while Laura Ceretta (1469-1499) and Margherita Birago (1560-1617) both made their marks in mathematics. But when Elena Piscopia (1646-1684) received a degree from the University of Padua in 1678, the University passed a rule that no other woman would be allowed to take a degree for at least 200 years. By the 18th century, natural philosophy, a study of nature open to both official academicians and intrepid amateurs, was professionalizing itself to become Science, and in the process women were slowly getting squeezed out of the field.

By the time Laura Bassi (1711-1778) successfully defended her theses in 1732, the number of cities in the world open to the possibility of professional academic women could be counted on one hand, and even there opportunity was thinning. Just ten years before Bassi's defense, Maria Delfini Dosi attempted a similar thesis defense, also in Bologna, and in spite of all the pomp and expense around the occasion and her own clear brilliance, failed to obtain her degree.

How did Bassi succeed where Dosi had failed? As one might expect, it wasn't just about science. Dosi was actively promoted by her father, Count Delfini Dosi, as a way of improving his standing with Bologna's elite, whereas Bassi came from the Middle Class and rose up naturally through the ranks of Bologna's informal intellectual salon society. Her promoters were established tutors, academics, and a cardinal who would one day become Pope. In dinners and conversations, she impressed all with the fluidity of her Latin and the depth of her learning, and so people who might have been averse to Count Dosi as a social climber might have been willing to exert themselves for a modest underdog of indisputable merit.

It also didn't hurt that the University of Bologna was hurting for a solid Win. Founded in 1088, it is the oldest university still in operation, and in the Middle Ages it was one of the most respected institutions of learning in Europe. By the early 18th century, however, it was a shadow of its former self, struggling to set a new course for itself in the face of the Scientific Revolution and the coming wave of Enlightenment. In an age of experimental science and Newtonian analysis, it was still bogged down by centuries of caked on Cartesian and sometimes even Aristotelian assumptions. To restore its position in Europe, bold strokes were needed, and awarding a degree to a female prodigy of nationally recognized erudition perhaps seemed one way to seize the initiative.

So, on April 17, 1732, Laura Bassi stood up to defend 49 theses in Latin in full view of Bologna's most learned and wealthy citizens. She had already joined, a month earlier, Bologna's Academy of Sciences, and so began a string of seeming triumphs that would extend through the rest of the year. She triumphed at her thesis defense and was publicly given her Doctoral Degree in May, and then in June defended an additional twelve theses in order to earn an unprecedented position as a lecturer at the University. She passed that trial as well, and presented her first informal lecture on October 20, and first presentation as an appointed, salaried lecturer on December 18, thus closing out a remarkable year that saw her go from salon prodigy to paid university instructor in the space of a breathtaking six months.

The University, however, was playing a subtle game and even as Laura was rising through the ranks, her responsibilities were being quietly curtailed. While male Academy members were expected to give regular reports on their research, Bassi was not. While male university lecturers were given regular classes to teach, it seems that, after Bassi delivered her inaugural lecture, she was compelled to do most of her teaching at home because of the university's unwillingness to give her the volume of lecturing commensurate with her position. When she was given work, it was as a composer of poetry and a literary commentator rather than as a scientist.

Nudged away from science and towards literature by a University and Academy that had squeezed all the promotional value they could out of her, Bassi also faced the great question of whether or not to marry. On one hand, marriage could help her career by allowing her to visit colleagues, and them to visit her, without the taint of lewd suspicion, which would place her more squarely in the center of Bologna's intellectual life. On the other hand, marriage would also upset those who supported her as an example of virginal dedication to learning. Still others might insist she resign her position in order to devote herself to her wifely and motherly duties.

Ultimately, she decided in favor of marriage, and found in Giuseppe Veratti a companion devoted to science who supported her continuing as a lecturer and researcher. What was better, he was widely known to possess a middling scientific mind, so there would be no rumors that he was the real brain behind her research. In 1738 they married and, predictably, just as many people congratulated her on her decision as lambasted her for surrendering her precious virginity, for marrying somebody so decidedly her intellectual inferior, and for sullying the purity of her work.

The two set up research facilities in their home dedicated to studies of physics and particularly electricity, and attracted students from around Italy and eventually throughout Europe to learn at their side, even while Bassi's official status was that of an occasional lecturer on philosophic themes. They walked that road for seven years, when one of Bassi's greatest and earliest admirers came to her rescue. In 1740, Prospero Lambertini became Pope Benedict XIV and began an eighteen year reign that saw an open support of scholarship and scientific research mixed with a doubling down on Council of Trent style counter-reformation precepts. In 1745, he sponsored a new experimentally-oriented group within the Academy and Institute of Sciences of Bologna to be called the Benedettina, to be made up of 14 section heads at the Institute and a further 10 people voted on by the original 14.

Bassi was not elected to the Benedettina but her husband, in spite of his vastly inferior reputation, was. Bassi, after a dozen years of being sidelined, decided to personally appeal to representatives of the Pope to see if she might be added as a twenty-fifth member so as not to displace anybody currently on the roster. The Pope said yes. The Bendettina members said they rather wouldn't. The Pope said too bad.

With her election as a Benedettina researcher, Bassi's public scientific career began in earnest. In spite of twelve pregnancies and nine children (of whom only five survived to adulthood) and the steadily diminishing health that resulted therefrom thanks to eighteenth century maternity practices, Bassi delivered a report on her original research every year from 1746 to 1777, covering a multitude of topics from hydrodynamics to light refraction to the properties of fire to that 18th century hot topic, the nature of electricity.

She was a powerful advocate for Newtonian theories of motion and optics, and in particular of the raw analytic power of calculus (a preference which caused her to split from her old tutor, who wanted her to proceed with purely Cartesian tools). She showed that temperature and humidity must be taken into account when describing the behavior of gases, which was a significant extension of Boyle's classic law relating gas volume and pressure. She also simplified the equations describing the behavior of water flowing through holes in canals, a topic of dire importance to rapidly growing cities seeking to import reliable water supplies. And when it came to electricity, she was a respected experimenter who was consulted by the reigning experts of the time, including Jean Antoine Nollet and Alessandro Volta.

She was an internationally respected Newtonian experimentalist at precisely the moment when Italy was finally ready to turn from Descartes to Newton, and from abstract theory to concentrated lab work, and so, when the Chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Bologna fell open in 1772, she lobbied to gain that post for herself and in 1776, received it, with her husband given the job of her lab assistant. The position was roughly that of a full professor today, and it made Laura Bassi the first woman in the history of the world to hold an academic chair. And not only to hold it, but to earn a salary proportionate to her duties - by the end of her career she was the highest paid lecturer in the entire university.

She did not get to enjoy the honor long. Her health was always in a precarious state, not helped by the serial pregnancy of her middle years, but she had always somehow found the will to do her research, teach her students, and carry out a correspondence with Europe's greatest scientific and literary lights. Indeed, on the day before her death she had attended an Academy meeting in what appeared to be the best of health. Then, on February 20, 1778, she felt a pain in her chest and suddenly died, leaving behind her husband, her laboratory, and her legacy to carry on as best they could.

Emilie du Châtelet had died in 1749, Maria Agnesi had stopped publishing in 1748, and with Bassi's death in 1778, though women continued to receive degrees here and there in Italy during the early 19th century, the continental tradition of women in science stalled for effectively a full century, leaving England and the United States to pick up the fallen torch and run with it as best they cared to. But when at last Europe roused itself to take note of its wealth of native female scientific talent, the mobilization was made all the smoother by the roll call of past glory: Hypatia, Trotula, Châtelet... Bassi.


The most steadfast of Laura Bassi scholars is Gabriella Logan, but she died of cancer before having a chance to write up her studies in book form. Some years later, Monique Frize took her papers and doctoral/master's theses and did just that, producing Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe (2013), a book which I very much want to like, but which has pretty sizable issues with structure and style that make for a great deal of repetition combined with long stretches that shed only the slightest of peripheral light on the work and life of Bassi. But unless you speak Italian, it's pretty much what there is.


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