Laura Bassi was the first woman to get a doctorate in science. On Saturday, the Google doodle paid tribute to her. During her 46-year career, Bassi spent a lot of time studying the physics of electricity and spreading Isaac Newton’s ideas about motion and gravity. She also fought for decades to get the same rights as her male colleagues to teach, do research, and show off her work in public.
Nerves of Steel
Isaac Newton, an English physicist, and mathematician wrote a book that came out 24 years before Bassi was born. In it, he explained the physical laws that govern how things move and how gravity affects them. The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which is often called Newton’s Principia because he published it in Latin,
as was common in the 1600s, is one of the foundations of modern physics. By the time Bassi was a teenager in Bologna and was learning logic and natural philosophy from her family’s doctor, Newton’s ideas were still pretty controversial in scientific circles. In fact, they were controversial enough to drive a wedge between Bassi and her tutor by the time she was 20.
But by that time, Prospero Lambertini, the Archbishop of Bologna, and later Pope Benedict XIV were interested in Bassi because of how smart she was in school and how well-connected her family was in social and political circles. In a time when most universities didn’t even let women in, Lambertini had enough power to make sure that Bassi could get her doctorate.
This opportunity came in the form of a public challenge. Lambertini set up a debate between Bassi and four physics professors from the University of Bologna. Bassi would present 49 theses, which were essays with her ideas about science, and defend them in front of the professors.
Bassi defended her thesis on April 17, 1732, in one of Bologna’s most important government buildings, the Palazzo Publico. The room was full of university professors, students, city officials, religious leaders, and various nobility. Less than a month later, the university gave Bassi a Ph.D. in physics. She was the second woman to get a Ph.D. and the first to get one in science. Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who came before her, got a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1678.
There are a few things about that “first” that is worth thinking about. The most important thing is that getting a doctorate from a university was a way for Europeans at the time to show how smart someone was. Even though Piscopia and Bassi were the first women to get PhDs, that doesn’t mean they were the first women in the world to teach philosophy and science, do research on or write about those topics, or be professors in those fields. It just means that they were the first people in Europe to get credit for what they knew and what they did.
Second, the average doctoral thesis in 1732 was a few orders of magnitude shorter than the average doctoral thesis in 2021, so we shouldn’t imagine Bassi defending 49 modern dissertations, each with hundreds of pages of text and references. She probably turned in about as much work as a graduate student does today, or maybe even a little bit more. However,
most graduate students today don’t have to defend their research in front of the Senate of Bologna and a future Pope. Bassi didn’t just know about her subjects and give them new ideas; she also seemed to have nerves of steel.
And I think she would have liked that comparison. Isaac Newton’s new ideas about how things move and the physics of electricity were the main topics of Bassi’s research and teaching. Scientists at the time were trying to figure out what electricity was and how it related to the force that makes living things, well, live. Those questions preoccupied people like Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvani, Benjamin Franklin, and Laura Bassi.
Prodigy at the Gates is a very good book.
It’s fun to imagine a young Laura Bassi storming the gates of academia with her own intelligence and drive in one hand and Labertini’s power in the other. The University of Bologna hired her as a lecturer a month after she got her Ph.D. There was a salary with the job, and it was a good one. Bassi was different from the women who came after her because she made more money than most of the men she worked with. But she couldn’t do nearly as much.
In Europe in the 18th century, men and women were expected to live in “separate spheres.” Men worked, traded, and participated in public life, while women stayed at home and did nothing. The University of Bologna made an exception for Bassi, but only up to a point. They rarely let her give formal, public lectures, which are how scientists get fame, money, and contacts, and they didn’t give her any money for research.
Bassi didn’t want to just be a symbol. She wanted to do research in science, and she also wanted to teach and lecture like any other professor. She finally got what she wanted after more than a decade of hard work and the help of the Pope himself (Lambertini became Pope Benedict XIV in 1740). In the end, in 1749, the university agreed to pay for Bassi’s research and let her teach private lessons.
Since Newtonian physics wasn’t on the university’s official course list, Bassi was free to teach it during private lessons. Her research was mostly about electricity, but she also wrote and gave talks on much other physics, math, and chemistry topics. In 1776, the University of Bologna made Bassi a full professor by giving her the Chair of Experimental Physics.
READ MORE ARTICLES;