The Google Doodle for Saturday is dedicated to physicist Laura Bassi, the first woman to receive a doctorate in science. Bassi spent a large part of her 46-year career studying the mechanics of electricity and popularizing Isaac Newton’s theories of motion and gravity. She also fought for decades to be able to teach, study, and present her work in public on the same terms as her male counterparts.
Isaac Newton, an English physicist and mathematician, published a book describing the physical laws that control how things move and how gravity affects them 24 years before Bassi was born. One of the foundations of modern physics is Newton’s Principia Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (commonly known as Newton’s Principia because he wrote it in Latin, as one did in the 1600s). Newton’s theories were already controversial in scientific circles when Bassi was a teenager in Bologna, studying logic and natural philosophy from her family’s physician. They were controversial enough to push a wedge between Bassi and her mentor by the time she was 20.
But by that time, Prospero Lambertini, then Archbishop of Bologna, and finally Pope Benedict XIV had taken notice of Bassi’s intellectual brilliance (combined, most likely, with her family’s social and political connections). Lambertini possessed enough influence to ensure that Bassi received her doctorate at a time when women were not even admitted to most universities.
The opportunity came in the form of a public challenge. Lambertini arranged for Bassi to defend 49 theses – articles proposing her scientific theories – in a debate against four physics professors from the University of Bologna.
Bassi defended her theses on April 17, 1732, in the Palazzo Publico, one of Bologna’s most prominent government buildings, in front of a packed audience of university professors, students, city officials, religious figures, and aristocracy. Bassi received her doctorate in physics from the university less than a month later, making her just the second woman to hold a doctorate – and the first in a science. Elena Cornaro Piscopia, her predecessor, had received a doctorate of philosophy in 1678.
It’s worth pausing to consider a few details about the specific “first.” The most notable is that earning a doctorate from a university was a uniquely European way of acknowledging one’s expertise at the time. Piscopia and Bassi were the first women in the world to receive a PhD, but that doesn’t mean they were the first women in the world to teach philosophy or science, or to do research or write about those subjects. It simply means that they were the first in Europe to have their expertise and work acknowledged in this way.
Second, the average doctoral thesis in 1732 was many orders of magnitude shorter than the average doctoral thesis in 2021, so we shouldn’t expect Bassi to defend 49 modern-style dissertations, each containing hundreds of pages of text and references. She probably presented about the same amount of work as a modern graduate student, if not a little more – but most modern graduate students aren’t required to justify their study in front of the Senate of Bologna and a potential Pope. Bassi not only knew her subjects and contributed original ideas to them, but she also seemed to have steely nerves.
And I’m sure she would have appreciated the metaphor. Bassi’s study and teaching focused on two topics: Isaac Newton’s novel theories on how objects moved and the physics of electricity. The latter was a hot topic among scientists at the time, who were trying to find out exactly what electricity was and how it applied to the force that allows living things to… well, live. Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvani, Benjamin Franklin, and Laura Bassi were all fascinated by these questions.
At The Gates, A Prodigy
It’s entertaining to imagine a young Laura Bassi storming the gates of academia, armed with her own brilliance and determination on one side and Labertini’s clout on the other. The University of Bologna employed her as a lecturer a month after she earned her doctorate. The role came with a salary, and it was a decent one. Unlike generations of women before her, Bassi earned more money than the majority of her male coworkers. But she was only allowed to do so much.
Men and women were forced to hold “separate spheres” in 18th-century Europe, with men working, selling, and participating in public life while women remained at home. The University of Bologna had made an exception for Bassi, but only to a point; the university only permitted her to give formal, public lectures on rare occasions – the kind that gave scientists fame, funding, and connections – and refused to finance her research.
Bassi didn’t want to be a bystander. She aspired to conduct scientific research and to teach and lecture on par with every other professor. She eventually succeeded after more than a decade of concerted effort and the support of the Pope himself (Lambertini became Pope Benedict XIV in 1740). In 1749, the university decided to finance Bassi’s research and encourage her to give private lessons.
Since Newtonian physics was not on the university’s official curriculum, Bassi was able to teach it in private lessons. Her research was mostly focused on electricity, but she also published and lectured on a broad variety of physics, mathematics, and chemistry topics. Bassi was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Bologna in 1776, making her a full professor.