Laura Maria Caterina Bassi: Newton’s Italian champion

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi, born October 29, 1711, was the second woman to receive a university degree in Europe and the first to be offered an official university teaching position, both at the University of Bologna in what is now Italy.

She was the first female member of the Bologna Academy of Sciences, one of the country’s leading academies, and played a significant role in the spread of Newtonian experimental physics through her teaching, research, and correspondence.

Stanford University’s online Bassi-Veratti Collection – so named because in 1738 she married science lecturer Giovanni Giuseppe Veratti – calls her “one of the most important and visible scientific women in 18th-century Europe”.

The website of her alma mater says Bassi was “the world’s first woman university professor”, at a time when “women were generally excluded from intellectual professions and learning”.

Bassi was born in Bologna, which at the time was part of the Papal States, before the Italian peninsula was unified in 1861. Her birthdate is variously given as between October 20 and 29.

The Stanford collection, advised by Bassi biographer Paula Findlen, says that although little documentary evidence of her own scientific work survives, “she nonetheless had an active program of research and experimentation for many decades and was widely reputed to be an outstanding teacher of experimental physics”.

The University of Bologna says she was “equally talented in Latin, logic, metaphysics, natural philosophy, algebra, geometry, Greek and French. She maintained ties with the greatest scholars of her time, from Volts to Voltaire.”

The university holds 28 of her dissertations, one on chemistry, 13 on physics, 11 on hydraulics, two on mathematics, one on mechanics and one on technology.

“Rather strangely,” says the website of the school of mathematics and statistics at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, “the main subject on which Bassi undertook experimental work was electricity, yet she never wrote a paper on the topic. In a well-equipped laboratory in her home, Bassi collaborated with her husband on the medical uses of electricity.”

It notes that this was a time when the study of physics was largely “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.”

Bassi’s entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica says she “was a child prodigy”. At age 13, professor Gaetano Tacconi, from the University of Bologna, took charge of her education, and seven years later he “invited the archbishop of Bologna, Prospero Cardinal Lambertini, to examine her progress”.

“Word quickly spread of Bassi’s intelligence, and in 1732 she was at the centre of a series of public events organized by Lambertini … On May 12, when Bassi received her [doctorate] degree, the excitement in Bologna over her accomplishments culminated in public celebrations and with collections of poetry published in her honour.”

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi died in 1778, at the age of 67, and is buried in Bologna’s Corpus Domini Church, adjacent to the final resting place of the city’s other famous scientist, Luigi Galvani.

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