Laura Maria Caterina Bassi of Bologna

  • Articles (two)
  • 29 pages; 32 pages
  • Level: high school and above

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (1711-1778) of Bologna, Italy is often identified as being the first woman to earn a doctoral degree and the first to be a university professor (where she eventually became the highest paid member of the faculty). Bassi showed great talent when she was young, and became something of a celebrity in Bologna when she earned her first degree. She was awarded a position at the University of Bologna that was somewhat honorary, but managed to eventually turn that into a full position as professor of physics. Bologna’s Archbishop, Prospero Lambertini, supported Bassi (and encouraged other women to pursue higher education in science)—support that became more valuable as Lambertini became a Cardinal and then Pope Benedict XIV.  Bassi’s drive and persistence is reflected in the words of someone involved in considering her request to be made a professor:

[F]inally to satisfy, if one ever can, the demands of Signora Laura Bassi who, although she has no right to be admitted among the Professors of the Institute, nevertheless has asked for this well over three Years, having nurtured some hope of this more than once…. she is a celebrated Woman known to the entire Republic of Letters, who truly brings great honor to her Patria, thus it seems that [her request] merits benign attention.

Laura Bassi accomplished her work in the realm of science while also being a wife, and mother of eight children (some sources report twelve children).

The following two articles are available electronically via JSTOR—many libraries provide free access to services, such as JSTOR, that can be used to download the full text of these papers:

Click here to access “Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi,” by Paula Findlen (Isis: Journal of the History of Science Society, 1993, vol. 84, pg. 441-469).  This article contains illustrations and focuses primarily on Bassi and her life.

Click here to access “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-Century Italian Woman of Science,” by Gabriella Berti Logan (American Historical Review, June 1994, pg. 785-812).  This article has a stronger focus on Bassi’s scientific work.