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Laura Bassi - Physicist (1711 – 1778)

Laura Bassi was appointed Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bologna in 1731, was elected to the Academy of the Institute for Sciences in 1732, and was given the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Bologna in 1733. In 1738, she married her colleague Dr. Giuseppe Veratti then had 12 children. While raising her family, she successfully petitioned for wider responsibilities and a higher salary to cover the cost of equipment for physical and electrical experiments. She continued her life-long interest in physics, lecturing from her home while her children were small then returning to the university at age 65 as a Professor of Experimental Physics in 1776.

She was mainly interested in Newtonian physics and taught courses on the subject for 28 years. She was one of the key figures in introducing Newton's ideas of physics and natural philosophy to Italy. She also carried out experiments of her own in all aspects of physics. In her lifetime she published 28 papers, the vast majority of these on physics and hydraulics, though she did not write any books.

In 1745 Pope Benedict XIV established an elite group of 25 scholars known as the Benedettini ('Benedictines', named after himself.) Bassi pressed hard to be appointed to this group, but there was a mixed reaction from the other academics with strong support from some but others taking a negative point of view. Ultimately Benedict did appoint her to the final position, the only woman in the group. In 1776, at the age of 65, she was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Institute of Sciences, with her husband as a teaching assistant. Two years later she died having made physics into a lifelong career and broken a huge amount of ground for women in academic circles.

In Bassi's lifetime, and in part as a result of her path-breaking work, women began making inroads into the universities both as students and professors. Gradually, over the next two centuries, more and more women would attend universities and go on to teach and administer at them until today, when fully half of the university students in the United States are women and the number of female faculty members keeps growing.

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