Laura Bassi

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This month’s essay deals with the life and work of an 18th century woman scientist, teacher, and scholar Laura Bassi of Bologna, Italy who successfully broke boundaries for women in academia and the sciences. She was renowned in her city of Bologna, as well as throughout Italy and the entire world. A child prodigy, she grew up to become an important teacher, scientific researcher, and innovator. In an age that frowned upon women achieving in academia and especially in science, she was able to overcome the sexist hurdles put up by many of her male critics. Her intellectual brilliance left many of these critics floundering in their own mediocrity.

CELEBRATED: Science, physics
ASSOCIATIONS: 18th century famous and world renowned scientist
Lived 18th

Lifetime: (1711-1778)

This month’s essay deals with the life and work of an 18th-century woman scientist, teacher, and scholar. She was renowned in her city of Bologna, as well as throughout Italy and the entire world. A child prodigy, she grew up to become an important teacher, scientific researcher, and innovator. In an age that frowned upon women achieving in academia and especially in science, she was able to overcome the sexist hurdles put up by many of her male critics. Her intellectual brilliance left many of these critics floundering in their own mediocrity. Her accomplishments demonstrated that women could be educated in Mathematics and the Physical Sciences and go on to be successful teachers and scientific researchers. She achieved several impressive “firsts” in this regard, as described in the essay. She became 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 experimental lab work. Her teaching moved her students to accept the new ideas and methods of “doing” science and mathematics, and she thus changed the way both were viewed and practiced in Italy.

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi Veratti was born on October 29, 1711 in Bologna, at the time of her birth a part of the Papal States. Her father, Giuseppe Bassi, was a wealthy, middle-class lawyer of non-noble origins from Modena; her mother was Rosa Marie Cesarei Bassi. Laura was the only child in the Bassi family who survived to maturity. She showed intellectual prowess at an early age. Her parents recognized her potential and Giuseppe hired a private tutor to educate her at home. Beginning at the age five, she was instructed in Latin, French, and mathematics by Father Lorenzo Stegani, who was her cousin. She learned quickly, mastering the two languages and excelling in her mathematical studies.

Lorenzini Lambertini
Lorenzini Lambertini, later, Pope Benedict XIV

When she was 13, she began to be tutored by the family doctor, Gaetano Tacconi, who was also a professor of medicine and philosophy at the University of Bologna. For the next seven years, he taught her philosophy, metaphysics, logic, and natural philosophy. Tacconi was very impressed with the abilities of his pupil and through him she began to gain a reputation among the circle of scholars in Bologna, many of whom visited the Bassi home to meet the child prodigy. One of these learned men was Prospero Lorenzini Lambertini, who became the Archbishop of Bologna in 1731 (and eventually Pope Benedict XIV in 1740, left). Lambertini was so impressed with her abilities that he became her patron and great promoter in academic and intellectual circles. (She and Tacconi eventually began to drift apart after Bassi developed an interest in Newtonian science and mathematics, especially his theories of motion and optics. She became impressed with the raw analytic power of Newton’s calculus and his use of scientific experimentation in these theories, despite Tacconi’s preference for her to focus on the less controversial mathematical tools of Rene Descartes. She would become a life-long proponent of Newtonian calculus and experimental science and their major adherent in Italy).


The year 1732 was an important year for the developing 20-year-old scholar. On March 20, she was elected to the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna, the first woman to be elected to such a prestigious organization. To show off his protégée, Lambertini arranged for her to debate in Latin four professors from the University of Bologna on April 17 in a defense of her 49 philosophical theses for the degree Doctor of Philosophy. (Several of her theses showed the influence of Newton’s works on optics and light). She had become so famous in

18th century woman scientist Laura Bassi

Bologna and so many of Bologna’s most learned and wealthy citizens wanted to see the event, that, presided over by Lambertini, it was held in the largest and most prestigious building in Bologna, Sala degli Anziani del Palazzo Pubblico (Hall of the Elders of the Public Palace, left), rather than in one of the smaller churches of the religious orders, as was customary at the time.

Her success in the debate and her defense led to the University of Bologna awarding her a doctorate degree on May 12. The event was celebrated in the Hall of Hercules of the Palazzo d’Accursio, also named Palazzo Comunale (Municipal Palace), with an ornate ceremony. Bassi received a silver laurel wreath and gave an acceptance speech in Latin. She became the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate in science, and only the second woman in the world to earn a PhD, after Elena Cornaro Piscopia of Venice in 1678, fifty-four years prior to Bassi’s reception.

The university recognized the importance of the event and had miniature paintings created that were used to decorate a number of official documents. A silver coin was also created in her honor that linked her with the Roman goddess of learning, Minerva. (She was by this time popularly known as the Bolognese Minerva). ¬¬¬The excitement in Bologna over her accomplishments culminated with public celebrations and with collections of poetry published in her honor.

On June 27, she defended twelve additional theses in a debate held at the Archiginnasio, the main and most important building of the University of Bologna. This was part of her petition to the Senate of the University for a teaching position. Her twelve theses covered a wide range of subjects, including chemistry, physics, hydraulics, mathematics, and mechanics. On October 29, the Senate and the University of Bologna granted her candidature as Reader in Natural Philosophy, which allowed her to lecture at the University of Bologna (the modern equivalent of an honorary lectureship position), and she assumed the position at the University in December. She thus began her academic career as the first salaried woman lecturer of physics in the world.

18th century woman scientist Laura Bassi
Bronze medal, made in 1732 to commemorate Laura Bassi’s academic accomplishments.

Her lecturing position, however, was not all what it might have seemed. The University still held that women were to lead private lives, so she was more restricted than male teachers from delivering public lectures. She was only allowed to lecture on special occasions when the lecture was open to the public and anyone, including women, could attend. She was not allowed to lecture to regular classes at the university where the students were all male. The University worried about creating a precedent that would encourage other women to aspire to careers as teachers, as well as creating distractions and other problems associated with the daily presence of a young woman among the male students.

On February 7, 1738 Bassi married Giovanni Giuseppe Veratti, a physician and also a professor at the university, in Bologna’s Basilica of San Petronio. The marriage actually improved the difficult academic situation she found herself in. The couple shared domestic life, professional work, and intellectual curiosity. She continued to lecture at the University under the constraints established by her position, but in addition she could now lecture to students in her own home without any restraints. For a number of years after her marriage, she had to divide her time between scientific experimentation, lecturing, teaching, and caring for her young children.

Bassi continued throughout these years fighting for teaching rights equal to men at the University, but to no avail. In 1739 her plea to the University for an increase in her teaching duties was supported by Lambertini and Flamino Scarselli, the secretary to the Bolognese ambassador at the papal court. She was again denied, but she was allowed to start private lessons in her home and the University granted her funds to conduct physics experiments there as well. This allowed her to avoid the constraints of the university and to explore and promulgate new ideas. The couple set up a laboratory in their home where they conducted experiments in physics, particularly in electricity, and demonstrated their experiments to an interested audience.

The couple also began a private school of experimental physics that Bassi managed from 1749 until her death in 1778. This allowed her to teach experimental physics directly to students, an opportunity denied her by the University. Her courses attracted young students as well as adults interested in Newtonian science from around Italy and eventually from throughout Europe. She based her courses on material found in Newton’s Principia. (below). Her knowledge of physics and mathematics, combined with her pioneering training in Newtonianism, counterbalanced the traditional approaches of her colleagues offered at the University. As a result, her private courses filled the academic void left by the University, offering students innovative experimental physics classes. In addition, she also became an important major figure in the diffusion of Newtonian science in Italy.

18th century woman scientist Laura BassiIn 1740, Prospero Lambertini was elected to succeed Pope Clement XII, becoming Pope Benedict XIV. This meant that Bassi had far less access to her patron, but nevertheless she was still able to communicate with him via Scarselli. Benedict began an 18-year reign that saw open support of scholarship and scientific research mixed with a doubling down on Council of Trent-style counter-reformation precepts. Having a pope who was a strong supporter of science and scholarship led to important developments in the country. In 1745, he implemented one of his ideas in order to stimulate new scientific research in Bologna, on the model of the Paris Academy of Sciences. He created a new experimentally-oriented society called the Benedettini (The Benedicts, named after himself). The pope picked 24 scientists to form the Benedettini: the 14 section heads at the Academy and Institute of Sciences of Bologna and a further ten people voted on by the original 14. They would receive a stipend of 50 lire on the condition that they present one dissertation per year based on new scientific work.

Bassi was not included in the original group, so she asked Scarselli to try to persuade the pope to appoint her as the 25th member of the Benedettini. This was a difficult decision for Pope Benedict since some of the 24 who had already been appointed were opposed to Bassi joining the select group (primarily because she was a woman and they were jealous of her) while others supported her. In the end, the pope went for a compromise solution by including her, but she was not given the same voting privileges as the other members.

With her election as a Benedettini researcher, Bassi’s public scientific career and notoriety began in earnest. In spite of numerous pregnancies and the steadily diminishing health that resulted therefrom thanks to the poor 18th-century maternity practices, she delivered a report on her original research every year from 1746 to 1777. The papers show the breadth of her research, covering a multitude of topics, including hydrodynamics, light refraction, the properties of fire, and that 18th-century hot topic—the nature of electricity.

Though the University did not permit her to teach formal classes at the institution, Bassi was considered a member of the staff throughout her life and she was still required to deliver public lectures from time to time at the University’s discretion. In 1750, she requested a pay increase in recognition of her commitment to teaching experimental physics at home, and in 1759, the University granted the increase. Her salary then became 1200 lire, making her the highest-paid faculty member at the University at the time.

She added an additional teaching position to her schedule in 1766, when she became the Preceptor for Experimental Physics for students attending the Collegio Montalto in Bologna. The Collegio was not a traditional learning institution like the University of Bologna. Its students, primarily those from the Le Marche Province, were taught in professors’ homes. The college was basically a free seminary, founded by Pope Sixtus V in 1586. (It was suppressed in 1797 when Napoleon successfully invaded Italy).

In 1772 Paolo Balbi, Chair and Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Bologna, died suddenly. Bassi’s husband Verratti was Balbi’s longtime assistant; he could have taken over the job, but he lacked knowledge of the higher mathematics necessary. Bassi believed she could fill the vacancy, and she lobbied arduously for the appointment to the vacated chair. Four years later, in 1776, at the age of 65, she became the Chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Bologna with her husband as her assistant. (The position was roughly that of a full professor today and included the honor of holding an academic chair). This made Laura Bassi the first woman in the world to hold an academic chair at a university. 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 this honor for long. Her health had always been in a precarious state; certainly not helped by numerous serial pregnancies and childbirth complications in her middle years. However, she had always somehow found the will to do her research, teach her students, and carry out correspondence with Europe’s greatest scientific and literary stars. On February 20, 1778, at the age of 66, she felt a pain in her chest and suddenly collapsed and died. The cause of her death was recorded as attacco di petto (attack of the chest), most likely a heart attack. Her funeral was held at the Church of Corpus Domini, Bologna, where silver laurels were put on her head and she was paid tribute by members of the Benedettini. She was interred in the church in Via Tagliapietre, in front of the tomb of her fellow scientist Luigi Galvani.


18th century woman scientist Laura Bassi
(Image: Sheila Terry/Science Photo Library)

Laura Bassi and her husband were co-researchers and co-teachers throughout their marriage. They saw themselves as partners in their work, although Laura was far and away more brilliant than her husband. Together, they had numerous children; some sources list twelve, but most likely the number was eight (based on baptismal records). Only five of their children reached adulthood: Giovanni (1738-1800), who became a canon of San Petronio and professor of theology in the Collegio Montalto; Ciro (1744-1827); Caterina (1745-1768), who became a nun; Giacomo (1749-1818), who became a church canon; and Paolo (1753-1831), who became a doctor and Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Bologna like his mother before him. He was the only one to produce any heirs.


Apart from the notable “firsts” that I have discussed above, Bassi’s main contributions were made in physics, although she wrote papers on a number of other scientific subjects and two mathematics papers. This was a time when physics was still divided between the views of Descartes and those of Newton. Bassi was a staunch supporter of Newton and her lectures were designed to introduce her students to Newtonian physics, especially Newton’s theories of motion and optics. In addition, she had an appreciation for the raw analytic power of calculus, a new approach developed by Newton for the use of mathematics in scientific experimentation and counter to the older traditional use of Cartesian tools.

The main subject on which she eventually undertook experimental work was electricity. In a well-equipped laboratory in her home, she collaborated with Veratti on experiments dealing with electricity, and especially its medical uses. She was a respected experimenter who was consulted by the reigning experts of the time in electricity, including Jean Antoine Nollet and Alessandro Volta.

Outside of science, Bassi was known for her strong religious (Roman Catholic) convictions, her devotion to the less fortunate, and her poetry, though she believed she did not have many talents in that pursuit.

As Gabriella Berti Logan wrote in The American Historical Review, “What made Bassi unique was that she made use of rewards, that would normally have remained symbolic, to carve out a position for herself in the scientific community of her town and to contribute to its intellectual life through her research and teaching.”

Hall of Fame

Laura Bassi received many honors in her lifetime, including memberships in many learned academies, scientific papers dedicated to her  and even a book of poetry written about her.  (From:

18th century woman scientist Laura Bassi

Image: Biblioteca dell’Archiginnasio


Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from: Debakcsy, Dale. “The Life of Laura Bassi (1711-1778): The World’s First Female Full Professor of Science.” Women You Should Know website, June 6, 2018; Gregersen, Erik. “Laura Bassi: Italian Scientist.” Encylopedia Britannica website; Logan, Gabriella Berti. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-Century Italian Woman of Science.” The American Historical Review, Volume 99 Issue 3, June 1994, pp. 785–812; O’Connor, J.J. and Robertson, E.F. “Laura Maria Catarina Bassi.” MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive of the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) website, December, 2008; Walker, Gina Luria. “Laura Bassi.” Project Continua website, 2021; Wikipedia website; and Your Dictionary-Biography website. All unattributed images are public domain. Published on Il Cenacolo website,, June 2021.

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