Laura Maria Catarina Bassi


Quick Info

Born
31 October 1711
Bologna, Papal States (now Italy)
Died
20 February 1778
Bologna, Papal States (now Italy)

Summary
Laura Bassi was an Italian physicist and one of the earliest women to gain a position in an Italian university.

Biography

Laura Bassi's father, Giuseppe Bassi, was a lawyer and so, not surprisingly, the family were quite well off. Giuseppe looked after houses and estates for several of the senators in Bologna so was much involved with the aristocracy of that city. Laura Bassi's mother was Rosa Cesári, about whom little appears to be known. Both Giuseppe and Rosa were originally from Scandiano, a town in the province of Reggio Emilia. Laura's paternal grandfather, Giacinto Bassi, had run a chemists shop in Bologna, where natural-based medicines were prepared and sold. Laura was her parents' only surviving child.

When she was five years old she began her education supervised by her cousin Father Lorenzo Stegani. He taught her until she was thirteen years old giving her lessons on Latin, French and arithmetic. It is not surprising that an educated girl at this time would be taught French and arithmetic but it is very surprising that she was taught Latin. This language, essential for men entering a scientific career, and many other careers, would have been considered useless for even a very well educated girl. Stegani wrote the preface [53] to the collection of poems published in honour of Laura Bassi in 1732, addressing it "To the most learned and erudite young lady Laura M C Bassi."

When Laura reached the age of thirteen, her father employed a private tutor, Gaetano Tacconi, who was a professor at the College of Medicine, to educate her and she received excellent teaching in a large range of subjects from him over a period of seven years. Tutoring at an advanced level by Tacconi, the family doctor of the Bassi family, continued from age thirteen until she was twenty. She is said to have studied anatomy, natural history, logic, metaphysics, philosophy, chemistry, hydraulics, mechanics, algebra, geometry, ancient Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. As Tacconi realised Bassi's remarkable intellectual abilities he introduced her to advanced science topics, including Isaac Newton's Optics which she could read in the Latin.

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. Several of the scholars who were members of the Academy of Science of Bologna were invited to Bassi's home by Tacconi, himself a member of the Academy, and she entered into disputations with them on philosophical topics. All were impressed by her debating skills and also by the ease with which she assimilated knowledge. One of these learned men was Prospero Lambertini. He had been born in Bologna and awarded a doctorate in theology and law by the University of Rome. He was elevated to cardinal in 1728, and in 1731 he returned to Bologna where he was elevated to an archbishop by Pope Clement XII. Lambertini became Bassi's patron and, to show off his protégé, set up a debate between her and four professors from Bologna on 17 April 1732. The debate was held in the grand Palazzo Pubblico in Bologna and Bassi defended forty-nine philosophical theses. Monique Frize writes [34]:-
Eighteenth century Theses were not pieces of original research as they are now, but answers and a discussion on a set of questions the candidate prepared ahead of time. The candidate first produced written responses in Latin to the questions posed by the professors, which were then read by a committee, and finally defended orally. This particular examination was quite out of the ordinary. Students normally defended their Thesis at the university in the presence of the teaching staff, definitely not in the presence of such a large and prestigious public as was the case on this day. The uniqueness of this event is explained by the fact that the candidate was not a young man, as we would expect, but a young woman, 20 year old Laura Bassi. ... Because of her sex, Laura had to perform in a very public manner in order to obtain recognition of her abilities and knowledge.
In fact at this time Bassi began to distance herself from Tacconi's advice. He had wanted her to concentrate on theses involving ethics, but Bassi, supported by Lambertini. wanted to concentrate on theses relating to physics. In fact eighteen were directly on physics; the ideas of Aristotle on motion, of Descartes' claim that force could not act at a distance, of Galileo and of Torricelli on the motion of fluids, and of Newton on light and colour. Her success led to the award of a doctorate in philosophy in May 1732 and, following this, an appointment as Reader in Philosophy allowed her to lecture at the University of Bologna. A month earlier, on 20 March 1732, she had become the first female member of the Academy of Science of Bologna when sixteen members of the Academy unanimously agreed that she be admitted after they had heard (see, for example, [27]):-
... the presentation that Signor Eustachio Manfredi, Signor Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, Father Abundio Collina, and others gave regarding the infinite and incredible erudition demonstrated by this young girl, beyond her sex and age, supported by the many conclusions that she sustained many times about all of philosophy, with such liveliness, quickness, nobility of speech, and profound learning that you would not be able to believe it if you had not heard her.
Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, the professor of physics, and Francesco Maria Zanotti, the professor of philosophy and secretary of the Academy, were sent to inform Bassi that she had been unanimously elected a member of the Academy and inform her of the "high esteem that the Academy had of her intelligence."

Around this time Bassi, no longer having Tacconi as a tutor, studied higher mathematics and Newton's physics with Gabriele Manfredi, the brother of the mathematician Eustachio Manfredi mentioned in the above quote. Let us note that the two Manfredi brothers would be well disposed to academically minded women since their two sisters Teresa Manfredi (1679-1767) and Maddelena Manfredi (1673-1744) had both studied astronomy, mathematics and Latin, and like Bassi took part in learned discussions with academics in their home.

There seems to have been quite a split in members of the Academy at this time with Tacconi and some others being committed to the natural philosophy tradition from Aristotle to Descartes while others were firm believers in Newton's approach. Bassi was becoming more and more a Newtonian [27]:-
By shaping the content of Bassi's public presentations of her learning, once her degree had been conferred and she was well on her way to becoming a university professor, the Newtonian members of the 'Istituto' established her status as a modern natural philosopher.
On 7 February 1738 Bassi married Giovanni Giuseppe Veratti, a lecturer in science at the University of Bologna, in the Basilica San Petronio in Bologna. The fourth of nine children of the physician Francesco Veratti and Rosalia Calvoli, Veratti had graduated in natural philosophy and medicine in 1734. He had presented six dissertations between 1733 and 1735, and was elected to the Academy. He was not, however, considered to be as good a scientist as Bassi. For example, Giovanni Giacomo Amadei, a canon of the church of S Maria Maggiore in Bologna, wrote [39]-
This marriage does not fill with satisfaction the citizens, who did not mince words in declaring it so, not only because of the bridegroom, who is a man of half merit, but more because of the bride, who might have done better if she had remained virgin in any retreat.
Marta Cavazza writes [9]:-
Unlike other learned women of her time, Laura Bassi was not indebted to her husband, who had a degree in medicine, for her philosophical and scientific education or indeed for her career. On the contrary, when they married, her knowledge of mathematics was far greater and much more contemporary than his, since she had acquired it from the school of Gabriele Manfredi, one of the Italian pioneers of infinitesimal calculus. ... Her knowledge of literary culture, i.e., Greek, Latin, and French, in addition to Italian, was also greater than his and she composed highly appreciated occasional verse in the Arcadian fashion. Thus, all the conditions necessary for a relationship between equal partners, in terms of family life and scientific collaboration, were present in the life of the Bassi-Veratti couple. This was not only unusual but almost inconceivable in the social, juridical, and cultural context of the 18th century, much less in the Pontifical State.
Despite becoming Laura Veratti at this stage, she is usually known by the name Bassi and we will continue to use 'Bassi' through the rest of this article. The marriage was considered wrong by many in Bologna who felt, in the same spirit as fellows in Colleges at the University of Cambridge could not marry and continue to hold their fellowships, Bassi should not be allowed to marry and continue to hold a lecturing position. Actually Bassi's lecturing position was not all that it might seem, for it only allowed her to lecture on special occasions when the lecture was open to the public when anyone, including women, could attend. She had not been allowed to lecture to regular classes at the university where the students would all be men. In fact marriage actually improved this difficult situation, for Bassi was now allowed to lecture in her home.

In 1739 she requested that the University of Bologna increase her teaching duties but, despite support from Lambertini and Flamino Scarselli, the secretary to the Bolognese ambassador at the papal court, all she was granted was funds for equipment to conduct physics experiments in her home. For quite a number of years after her marriage Bassi had to divide her time between academic studies and caring for young children. Laura and Giuseppe Veratti had many children; some sources suggest that they had twelve but it seems more likely that the actual number was nine. However many children they had, only five reached adulthood. Of these were four sons named Ciro, Paolo, Giovanni Francesco, and Giacomo. Paolo (1753-1831) became a physician and experimental physicist while Giacomo (1749-1818) and Giovanni Francesco (1738-1800) became canons in the Basilica of San Petronio. Little is known of the career of Ciro (1744-1827) but he filed a court case against Paolo in 1818 claiming half the proceeds from the sale of the Bassi-Veratti laboratory which Paolo had continued to use after his mother's death. Their only surviving daughter, Caterina (1750-1768), became a nun but died at the age of eighteen. Three girls named Caterina had been born in 1739, 1742 and 1745 but had all died in the year of their birth. The only boy who died as a baby was Flaminio who was born and died in 1751.

On 17 August 1740, Cardinal 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. However having a pope who was a strong supporter of science and scholarship led to important developments in the country. One of Pope Benedict XIV's ideas to improve the level of scholarly research was to create a society called the Benedettini. The pope picked 24 scientists to form the Benedettini, and made a condition of their acceptance that they had to submit one paper per year to him. Bassi asked Scarselli to try to persuade the pope to appoint her as the twenty-fifth Benedettini. This was a difficult decision since some of the twenty-four who had already been appointed were opposed to Bassi joining the select group while others supported her. In the end Benedict XIV went for a compromise solution by appointing Bassi as the twenty-fifth Benedettini but not giving her the same voting rights as the others.

The high esteem in which Bassi was held during her lifetime is very evident from the writings by those who knew her. Let us give one quote to illustrate this. Voltaire wrote to Bassi on 23 November 1744 (see, for example, [26]):-
Most Honoured Lady: I would like to visit Bologna so that I might say to my fellow citizens that I have seen Signora Bassi, but, deprived of this honour, I trust that I may with justice cast at your feet this philosophical homage in reverence to the glory of her century and sex. As there is no Bassi in London I should more happily enter your Academy of Bologna than the English one, even though it may have produced a Newton.
Around 1749 she began giving lessons in her own home. She wrote to Scarselli on 14 June 1755 (see, for example, [26]):-
It is six years since I began giving private physics classes in my house daily, for eight months of the year. I support these myself, paying for all the necessary equipment apart from that which my husband had made when he was lecturing in philosophy. The classes have gathered such momentum that they are now attended by people of considerable education, including foreigners, rather than by youths.
Bassi's main contributions were made in physics although she wrote papers on a number of other scientific subjects including two mathematics papers. This was a time when physics was still divided between the views of Descartes and those of Newton. As we mentioned above, Bassi was a staunch supporter of Newton and her lectures were designed to introduce her students to Newtonian physics. Of 28 papers by Bassi which are held in the Bologna Academy of Sciences in Bologna, thirteen are on physics, eleven are on hydraulics, two are on mathematics, one is on mechanics, one is on technology, and one is on chemistry. This is a remarkable achievement, although one would have to say that they contain little that is original. By the conditions of the Benedettini, she submitted a paper each year, the first three being: On the compression of air (1746)On the bubbles observed in free flowing liquids (1747); and On bubbles of air that escape from fluids (1748). Although many of her papers remain in manuscript, having never been published, one of her papers on mechanics De problemate quodam mechanico  and one on hydraulics De problemate quodam hydrometrico  were published in the Commentaries of the Bologna Institute in 1757. G B Logan writes about these in [39]. On the problem in mechanics he writes:-
In this article, Bassi used differential calculus to determine the motion of the centre of mass of two or more bodies moving along any curved paths in a plane. If the motion of the two bodies was rectilinear rather than curvilinear, one was then confronted with the case stated by Newton in his 'Principia Mathematica' ... This work by Bassi signals the beginning of a trend in dissertations concerning the classical mechanics given at the Academy.
On the problem on hydrometrics, Logan writes:-
A technician, knowing the dimensions and positions of two and more openings in a canal, would have been able to calculate the position and size of another opening of similar shape under the water, using the method established by Guglielmini and Zedrini, which estimated the average velocity and quantity of water going though these holes. However, this method, which led to an equation with two unknowns, required some simplification. This simplification was provided by Bassi when she reduced the equation to one unknown by the analytic method.
Rather strangely, 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 medical uses of electricity. Monique Frize writes [34]:-
Several famous men visited the laboratory established by the Bassi-Veratti couple in their home. Some visitors wanted to view experiments done by Laura or Giuseppe; at other times they performed experiments with the couple on interesting problems of the day. Laura debated with men on several of the ideas that were of prime interest in her time, especially those regarding theories of electricity, gases, and water. Giuseppe studied the potential therapeutic effect of electricity on animals and on the human body
The greatest honour given to Bassi was in 1776 when she was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at Bologna. She did not achieve this easily but only after a lengthy debate did the University agree to appoint her to a professorship. This appointment did have the consequence that Bassi's husband now officially became her assistant. Bassi became the first woman appointed to a chair of physics at any university in the world. It was a fitting high point for her career, but sadly she did not live long to enjoy the position for she died just over a year later. Her husband was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at Bologna after Bassi died.

Bassi's death was sudden and described at the time as "an attack in the chest" which may indicate a heart attack but other causes are also possible. Silver laurels were placed on her head for her funeral and, accompanied by the members of the Benedettina, her body was taken to the church of Corpus Domini where she was buried.

Paula Findlen writes in [28]:-
Bassi's death, like so many aspects of her life, did not go unmarked. Aside from the numerous eulogies given in her honour by members of the learned community, in Bologna and elsewhere, written notices of her accomplishments appeared in the journals serving the Republic of Letters. In Bologna, the Institute established a commission to judge a competition for a monument to their most famous female member. By 1781, the deliberations complete, work on a marble statue designed by Senator Antonio Bovio Silvestri was under way. After much discussion, it was decided that the image of Bassi should be placed above the door to the Nautical Room in the Institute, where many of Marsili's beloved model ships were housed. During her lifetime Bassi had constantly reminded her colleagues that she was not simply a figurehead, but a practicing experimental philosopher who wished to teach as well as perform research. She had fought long and hard to expand her role beyond its ceremonial functions, earning the respect, admiration, and, most important, support of many contemporaries in the process. Death, however, relegated her once again to a ceremonial position. Her likeness preserved in marble, positioned high above the doors through which the members of the Institute passed, she reclaimed her role as scientific muse. Smiling benignly down upon her former colleagues in effigy, and buried wearing her silver crown of laurels, Bassi re-entered the realm of mythology from which she had emerged.
Let us end by quoting from Alberto Elena [26]:-
... she was a figure of the greatest importance in the intellectually flourishing Bologna of the eighteenth century and one of the leading characters in the acclimatisation of Newtonian natural philosophy in the Italian states. While there can be no doubt that the city itself accentuated Bassi's fame in order to promote its own glory, the little we know about her physical researches and her Newtonian commitment is enough to make it clear that she deserves a place in the history of science.


References (show)

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Honours (show)

Honours awarded to Laura Bassi

  1. Popular biographies list Number 106

Cross-references (show)


Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update December 2021