Laura Bassi (1711-1778): First Female Professor

Portrait of Laura Bassi: Carlo Vandi, eighteenth century. Wikimedia Commons: find the original here.


The last couple of weeks I’ve been doing some reading about women travelling in Europe during the eighteenth century, and I came across a reference in letters sent between the Countesses of Pomfret and Hertford detailing the Countess of Pomfret, Henrietta Fermor’s, excursion in Europe. They were discussing educated women and in July 1739, Henrietta commented that she had heard of a woman, about twenty-four years old,

“of such superior knowledge and capacity, that she has been elected the philosophy-professor at Bologna, where she now gives lectures as such.”

This woman was Laura Bassi, and two years after this letter, Henrietta met Laura, who was the second woman recorded to have received a PhD. This follows my previous blog post on Elena Cornaro Piscopia – find that here!

Laura was born in Bologna on October 31st 1711 into a wealthy family, and was the only child in her family to survive infancy. Her father financed her private education, and between the ages of thirteen and twenty, she was tutored in philosophy and metaphysics by Gaetano Tacconi. Tacconi was not only the family physician, but also a professor at the University of Bologna, and he used his position to publicise Laura’s talent in his academic circles. This meant that Laura was noticed by the future Pope Benedict XIV, Cardinal Prospero Lambertini. When he was younger, he had studied the sciences and so was very interested in Laura’s work, so began to patronise her and encourage her to take part in public debates.

When Laura was only twenty years old, she was given a teaching position at the oldest university in Europe, the University of Bologna. She was made chair of Philosophy, but many of her colleagues believed that her teaching ideas about nature in a room full of male students, so an injunction was placed on her professorship. This meant she only gave occasional public lectures – that women could attend – and she spent more time studying privately.

This all changed when Laura married in 1738. Her husband was fellow scientist Giuseppe Veratti, and being married meant that she could now teach in her home however she wished. In 1749, she opened a school there, offering courses lasting eight months that were more comprehensive than any offered by the University or Bologna Institute. Laura’s patrons helped her to get more responsibility at the University and negotiate higher wages, which enabled her to build a laboratory at home. She and Giuseppe worked on experiments together studying electricity. By 1760, Laura was paid more than any science professor at her university, with her salary at 1200 lire. Not bad for only the second ever woman to gain a PhD, right?

Not only all of this, but Laura also corresponded with Voltaire, assisted him in becoming a member of the Bologna Academy of Science, and became a member of the Benedettini, a group of elite intellectuals established by Pope Benedict XIV, Laura’s patron. Until two years before she died, Laura would present every year to the Benedictine Academy. She became famous amongst science scholars for the way she taught experimental physics, and her extensive work in the areas of mechanics, elacticity, properties of gases, hydrometry and electricity. When she was sixty-five years old, the Institute of Sciences gave her the position of Chair in Experimental Physics, and Giuseppe was her official teaching assistant. She passed away two years later, on February 20th, 1778. Laura left a mark on the sciences even though only four of her papers appeared in print when she was alive or posthumously.

She certainly created a great impression to Henrietta Fermor, and her correspondent, the Countess of Hertford, Frances Thynne. When Henrietta met Laura, “the famous doctress”, on Monday 29th June 1741, she wrote this glowing description:

“She is not yet thirty, and did not begin to study till she was sixteen, when, having a tedious illness, and being attended by a physician who was a man of great learning, he perceived her genius, and began to instruct her with that success that she is now able to dispute with any person whatever on the most sublime points. This she does with so much unaffected modesty, and such strength of reason, as must please all hearers, of which number we were”

Frances, stuck at home in England, was really sad to have missed it, and summarises simply what Laura’s academic achievements meant for eighteenth century women:

“It would have made me very happy, could I have attended you to visit the signora Laura Bassi. Her attainments do honour to our sex.”

Find the letters here…

Anon, (ed.), Correspondence between Frances, countess of Hartford, (afterwards the Duchess of Somerset) and Henrietta Louisa, countess of Pomfret, between the years 1738 and 1741, Vol. I, II & III (London: Printed by I. Gold, Shoe Lane, for Richard Phillips, No. 6, Bridge-Street, Blackfriars, 1805).

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