You might think that the debate about whether women can ‘have it all’ – a career and a family – is a modern phenomenon. Yet when working through the RCP’s print collection recently, I came across a scientist whose life and career challenges what we might expect for an 18th century woman. It is unusual enough to find a woman in the print collection in the first place, let alone one with such an inspiring life story as Laura Bassi (1711–1778).
Born in 1711 in Bologna, the daughter of a lawyer, Laura Bassi was tutored in a number of subjects by the family physician from a very young age. This early encouragement to pursue her intellectual leanings sowed the seeds for an exceptional academic career. She was only the second woman ever to be awarded a doctorate in philosophy (at the age of 21), studying logic, metaphysics and natural philosophy, soon after which she became the first woman to hold a teaching position at a European university. Bassi’s position at the university was so unusual that, at the public dissections of human bodies that took place every year, people were flocking as much to see this notorious female professor as they were to see the gruesome spectacle of blood and guts.
Bassi and her husband Giovanni Giuseppe Veratti (also an academic at the university) had eight children, but only five of them survived to adulthood. She juggled her lecturing and scientific experiments with caring for her children.
Despite her teaching position in natural philosophy, a precursor to what we call physics, Bassi was not given the same treatment as her male colleagues. She was not allowed to lecture in public because she was female, which she got around by teaching privately in her own home, even paying for the scientific equipment herself. This unsatisfactory state of affairs led Bassi to demand a pay rise from the university (which they agreed to), her salary was one of the highest in the university. She also demanded a change to the terms of her teaching, and the university agreed to allow her to teach in public. In 1776, and at the age of 65, she was appointed to the chair of experimental physics at the university, and became the first woman to hold such a post. Her husband became her assistant, succeeding to the chair on her death 2 years later.
Though she mainly focused on natural philosophy, her interests were broad. She was particularly interested in the study of electricity – in 1746 she purchased a machine which could produce electricity, and had it installed in the family home. She also wrote poetry, and assisted her cousin Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729–1799) with his experiments to see whether snails’ heads would grow back after being cut off. (They didn’t.)
Throughout her life she was regarded as something of a celebrity: a female professor, with connections to the Pope, and famous admirers including Voltaire. Today she is less well known, but her stellar career and her busy family life show her to be a woman with truly modern concerns and sensibilities, despite her 18th-century birthdate.
Natasha Logan, museum volunteer
Further reading about Laura Bassi:
- Elena, A. ‘In lode della filosofessa di Bologna’: an introduction to Laura Bassi. Isis 1991;82: 510–8.
- Logan, GB. The desire to contribute: an eighteenth-century Italian woman of science. American Historical Review 1994;99:785-812.
- Findlen, P. Science as a career in Enlightenment Italy: the strategies of Laura Bassi. Isis 1993;84:441-69.