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World-Changing Women: Laura Bassi

Updated Wednesday 25th February 2015

Laura Bassi is perceived as the first woman to hold down a science career, setting up a renowned school in her own home. Read up on her acheivements here...

Laura Bassi Italy 1711 - 78 Science

Laura Bassi image Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC Artist's depiction of Laura Bassi Laura Bassi was a science graduate, a university professor and possibly the first woman to hold down a professional career in the world of science. This achievement is all the more remarkable given that, in the 1700s, it was considered immodest and indecent for a young woman to engage in debate about aspects of the natural world with groups of men.

Bassi was born in the city of Bologna, Italy, known as a ‘city of learning’. She was the daughter of a lawyer and, following an elementary education, received tuition in philosophy and physics from the family doctor who had been impressed by her remarkable aptitude for learning.  In 1732, at the age of 21, she became the first female member of the Academy of Sciences of Bologna Institute and was appointed Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bologna, the first woman professor to be appointed at a European university.  However, these positions were considered honorary and not intended to set a precedent for other women. Bassi was expected not to participate in the day to day business of the academy whilst the university professorship was created specifically for her, and she was not allowed to teach publicly.

To get around this prohibition, in 1749 Bassi officially opened a ‘domestic school’ in her own home. Her eight-month long course offered a more comprehensive instruction than either the university or the Bologna Institute. Students came from all over Italy and from elsewhere in Europe to study with her as her skill in combining the theoretical and experimental aspects of physics became well known. She was a key figure in introducing Newton’s physics and philosophy to Italy. She wrote extensively but is hardly known today, possibly because only four of her papers appeared in print during or after her lifetime.

 

This article is part of the world-changing women collection. All the articles in this collection are specially produced for the How women changed the world interactive tour created to reveal the untold stories the history books left out.

You can also view these articles without the interactive feature here.

 

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