Laura Bassi: The First Woman with a Science Ph.D.

Laura Bassi was born in 1711 in Bologna, Italy. She came from a prosperous and well-connected family. She was privately educated. Beginning at age 5, she learned Latin and mathematics. Later she would learn science and philosophy.

The Archbishop of Bologna was impressed by her intellect and became her patron. When Laura was 20 years old, he arranged for her to debate four faculty from the University of Bologna in a public setting. She did so well that the university offered her a degree less than a month later. She became known as the Bolognese Minerva (Minerva was the Goddess of Wisdom).

Later that year, she was given a professional appointment at the University. This was largely an honorary position, but she did become the first woman to earn a salary as a university professor. While this was quite a tribute to Laura, it did not move the position of women that far forward in the academic world. She was not allowed to teach classes to male students. In essence, she became a private tutor and public figure in university life.

She was allowed to have a lab in her home and provided with funding for experiments. She became a leading figure in the acceptance of Newtonian physics. When the professor of experimental physics died, it was expected that Laura’s husband would be elevated to become his replacement. He had been the professor’s assistant. It was a shock when Laura was named the Chair of Experimental Physics instead of her husband. Unfortunately, she died only two years later.

Throughout her life, Laura faced challenges that few men had ever faced as an intellectual pioneer. She was in ill health due in large part to the number of children she gave birth to (eight is believed to be the number but it could have been as many as 12). It required intervention by her patron, who had become the Pope, to provide her with an academic life normal for men. She had extensive administrative duties as well.

It is through her correspondence with the leading scholars at the time that we now realize the full range of her intellect. She accelerated the acceptance of Newtonian physics. But she became a pioneer for the acceptance of women in universities.

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“There is no Bassi in London, and I would be much happier to be added to your Academy of Bologna than to that of the English, even though it has produced a Newton.” – Voltaire

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