The Historical Importance of Laura Bassi

In a time when it was considered an impressive accomplishment for a
woman to have an education, Laura Bassi earned a doctorate and became a
university professor1.She worked with unrelenting determination to
achieve her goals and be treated as an equal in her field. Bassi, who was
born on October 20th 1711, did not try to impress or fit in with any
particular group. She managed to raise 12 children in addition to her
professional duties2. She is an important historical figure because of her
contributions to science, which span across several fields. She is also
important because she had to work so much harder to achieve these goals,
due to the obstacles facing every woman seeking this type of employment in
her era.

Bassi was a noted professor of anatomy, an accomplished physicist, a
Doctor of philosophy, and a mother of twelve3. Even today, over 200 years
after her death, most women would be considered successful with even one of
these titles to their name. Bassi had incredible drive and gave her all to
each of her responsibilities. She somehow managed to find the time to do
charity work helping the poor, and enjoyed writing poetry4. Bassi’s time
was mostly spent teaching, experimenting, and attending meetings of the
Bologna Academy of Science. She was genuinely interested in her work and
it was important to her to pass her knowledge on to others whom encouraged
to become educated.

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One possible reason for the long list of Bassi’s accomplishments is
the excellent start to her education. Even as a child, she displayed an
extraordinary aptitude for learning, as she easily mastered languages and
became fluent in both French and Latin5. She became a professor at age 21,
the result of her hard work with tutors, as well as a powerful memory6.

Another possible contributor to Bassi’s drive and subsequent successes was
that after accomplishing so much, so young, her standards were set
extremely high in every challenge encountered.

After much insisting by her family and friends, Laura took part in a
public debate to defend her set of theses on philosophy. On April 17,
1732, she debated with five men who were considered to be the top scholars
in Italy at that time7. Bassi took this opportunity to shine. Her
successful debating earned her the respect of many and a degree in
philosophy, and this announced her as an equal amongst the much older, more
educated men.

Although she was officially given the position of professor at the
University of Bologna, getting permission to actually teach was much more
difficult. Bassi tried everything within her power to convince the Senators
to allow her to teach a class regularly, but her requests fell on deaf ears
for many years. The all-male Senate wanted her to be solely and honorary
member, not active on campus8. She was permitted to give lectures
sporadically, but this did not satisfy her desire to teach. The
discouraging response from the Senate did not make Bassi give up, on the
contrary, she just kept trying.

When she couldn’t teach at school, Bassi took matters into her own
hands and in 1749 began teaching lessons from her own home. She taught
mathematics first and then settled into more popular classes in physics and
anatomy. The physics course became very popular, attracting not only young
students but adults as well9. This is important because is demonstrates
how well respected Bassi was, as grown men would not normally take a
science class from a woman. Due to the fact that she was teaching these
lessons at home, Bassi was able to branch out and teach whatever she
wanted, without having to consider university curriculum. She exercised
this freedom regularly, and taught Newtonian philosophy, which was still
considered modern and wasn’t widely accepted10.

Since Bassi had now proven herself as a competent and innovative
teacher, the question remained: why was she not teaching regularly at the
university? The only answer is she was discriminated against because of her
sex. As the number of her supporters grew, including the Pope himself,
more pressure was put on the Senate to give her a proper classroom.

Persistence finally paid off for Bassi in 1776, as she was granted a
regular teaching position, only two years before her death. She was a
professor of experimental physics, and conducted many experiments and
observations as the focus of her class11.

Laura Bassi was not interested in marriage when she was young, as she
thought it was much more useful to spend her time devoted to her work. Many
in the community were surprised when she did marry in 173812. Some people
spoke out against her marriage, claiming it would tarnish her professional
reputation, and most assumed her career would end as a result. Bassi proved
them all wrong. She was successful in both her professional and family
life. This is another example of how strong-willed and independent Bassi
was, she was completely unconcerned with trying to be conventional.

Bassi’s motives for marrying her husband may have related to the fact
that many people disapproved of her spending so much time with groups of
men in her home13. She was the subject of much gossip and accusations
about her relationships with these men. After she married fellow professor
and scientist Giuseppe Verrati the rumours ceased, as he began to accompany
her to meetings. This is not to say that Bassi was careless in her choice
of her husband. She said that she decided to marry him because she thought
him to be “a person who walks my path in the arts and who, through long
experience, I was certain would not impede me from following mine.”14
Most women in this era did not work at all outside the home. For
this reason, Bassi’s accomplishments as a scientist and a mother were all
the more impressive. Also, her success at work and home was an inspiration
to many women who had never even considered the possibilities of leading
this “double life”. As a pioneer of working women, Bassi is an ideal role
model for all women who want the best of both worlds.

She invented devices for experimenting with electricity, but made no
notable major discoveries. Her contributions to science15, and especially
women in science go far beyond the role any invention would play. She was
an inspiration for others to get educated. She was an inspiration to women
to have their own goals and to work hard and achieve them.

Historically, we see Laura Bassi as the first female college
professor to actually teach a class16. This well-deserved recognition
doesn’t tell half the story of her accomplishments through teaching and
inspiring her students, and the revolution she helped stir to get women
recognized as equals in a professional field. Bassi is unique because she
stood up for herself and gained the job and respect she was seeking. She
is an important historical figure because unlike the women who came before
her, Bassi would not tolerate the discriminatory system in which she was
born.


Bibliography
Bailey Ogilvie, Marilyn. Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth
Century. Cambridge, Mass.; The MIT Press, 1986, (37)
Berti Logan, Gabriella. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-Century
Italian Woman of Science.” American Historical Review, 99 (June 1994)
785-812
Mozans, H.J. Women In Science: With an Introductory Chapter on Woman’s Long
Struggle for Things of the Mind. Cambridge, Mass.; University of Notre Dame
Press, 1913, (78-9, 147-8, 202-212, 298)
Yount, Lisa. A to Z of Women in Science and Math. New York, N.Y. ; Facts
on File, 1999, ( 14)

The Historical Importance of
Laura Bassi

Date: February 24, 2004Humanities 111
1 Mozans, H.J. Women In Science: With an Introductory Chapter on
Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind. Cambridge, Mass.; University
of Notre Dame Press, 1913 (pg. 78)
2 Mozans, H.J. Women In Science: With an Introductory Chapter on
Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind. Cambridge, Mass.; University
of Notre Dame Press, 1913 (pg. 208)
3 Bailey Ogilvie, Marilyn. Women in Science: Antiquity through the
Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.; The MIT Press, 1986 (pg. 37)
4 Yount, Lisa. A to Z of Women in Science and Math. New York, N.Y. ;
Facts on File, 1999(pg. 14)
5 Berti Logan, Gabriella. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-
Century Italian Woman of Science.” American Historical Review, 99 (June
1994) pg.786
6 Mozans, H.J. Women In Science: With an Introductory Chapter on
Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind. Cambridge, Mass.; University
of Notre Dame Press, 1913 (pg. 203)
7 Mozans, H.J. Women In Science: With an Introductory Chapter on
Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind. Cambridge, Mass.; University
of Notre Dame Press, 1913 (pg.203)
8 Berti Logan, Gabriella. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-
Century Italian Woman of Science.” American Historical Review, 99 (June
1994) pg.791
9 Berti Logan, Gabriella. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-
Century Italian Woman of Science.” American Historical Review, 99 (June
1994) pg. 797
10 Berti Logan, Gabriella. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-
Century Italian Woman of Science.” American Historical Review, 99 (June
1994) pg.798
11 Mozans, H.J. Women In Science: With an Introductory Chapter on
Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind. Cambridge, Mass.; University
of Notre Dame Press, 1913 (pg. 209)
12 Bailey Ogilvie, Marilyn. Women in Science: Antiquity through the
Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.; The MIT Press, 1986 (pg. 37)
13Berti Logan, Gabriella. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-
Century Italian Woman of Science.” American Historical Review, 99 (June
1994) pg. 795
14Berti Logan, Gabriella. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-
Century Italian Woman of Science.” American Historical Review, 99 (June
1994) pg.795
15Berti Logan, Gabriella. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-
Century Italian Woman of Science.” American Historical Review, 99 (June
1994) 790, 793, 797-8, 801, 803-811
16Mozans, H.J. Women In Science: With an Introductory Chapter on
Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind. Cambridge, Mass.; University
of Notre Dame Press, 1913 (pg.202)