Laura Bassi (1711-1778)

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi.

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Laura Bassi was an Italian scientist and the first woman professor to be appointed at a European university. She was born in Bologna in 1711. Her father, a wealthy lawyer, decided she should be fully educated at home, and she was tutored for seven years. Bassi developed an interest in science, and was encouraged by her family and friends, including Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (a future pope), to seek an academic post.

At the age of 21, in 1732, she was appointed Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bologna. Two years later she was given a position in philosophy. In 1738 she married a fellow academic, Guiseppe Varetti, with whom she had eight children.

Bassi approached the university requesting more teaching work and was allowed to give classes in her own home, setting up a laboratory for her students. Bassi taught a course on Newtonian physics for 28 years, and was one of the key figures in introducing Newton’s physics and philosophy to Italy. She wrote 28 published articles, mainly on physics and hydraulics.

In 1745 she was appointed to an elite group of academics known as the Benedettini, set up by Lambertini, who was now pope. In 1776, aged 65, she was appointed to a professorship in experimental physics at the Institute of Sciences, with her husband as teaching assistant. Two years later she died, but her influence on Italian physics, and her long career, helped break new ground for female academics.