Technology may not seem like more of a woman's world than science, but in some ways it is - Ada Lovelace is revered by computer programmers and is well-known in popular culture, while Laura Bassi, the first women to forge a professional scientific career, is basically unknown outside physics.

Laura Bassi was born in Bologna in 1711 and rose to celebrity status across the globe, gaining a reputation as being the best physics teacher of her generation and helping to develop the discipline of experimental physics.She was the "woman who understood Newton", even more of a fascination then because so few men in science understood Newton.

Bassi held numerous professorships and academy memberships throughout her life, becoming professor of anatomy in 1732 at the University of Bologna and elected to the Academy of the Institute for Sciences at the age of 21. In 1733, she was given the chair of philosophy. Bassi was only the second woman to receive a university degree. She was so well regarded her professorship at the University of Bologna was created solely for her, beyond the normal number of faculty positions, as was her admission to the Academy of Sciences of Bologna Institute -- an equivalent of the Royal Society -- which was the vehicle that propelled Bassi into the public eye.

Laura Bassi. Credit: Wikipedia.

Bassi's career was not without bumps in Italian science of the 1700s. Colleagues considered it indecent for a young woman to be teaching ideas of nature so they pressured the archbishop of Bologna to make an injunction on her professorship - she was only allowed to lecture when she was specifically asked. After marrying fellow professor Giuseppe Veratti in 1738, Bassi was able to invite guests to her house to discuss physics without violating her teaching restrictions. In 1749 Bassi officially opened her domestic school.  

Her fame continued to grow. In 1764 physician John Morgan, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, visited the Bassi–Veratti home laboratory and watched Bassi perform Newton's prism experiments, excited to tell his famous American friend that he had met her. Alessandro Volta, who later became the inventor of the battery, sent Bassi his earliest publications, hoping to gain approval for his work.

The culmination of her eventual appreciation by the world of science came in 1776, two years before her death, when Bassi was appointed Bologna Institute professor of experimental physics. She had to work far harder than men to get approval, but she finally got it. So why haven't you heard of her? Physics has been around a long time and the hard sciences are less involved in social justice than the soft and social sciences, so they don't make a big deal of the fact that the first professional female scientist was a physicist. And she did not publish a lot, no fundamental work like Newton's Principia, only four of her papers appeared in print during or after her lifetime and her unpublished papers went missing in the early 1800s.

"She produced the kinds of incremental results that tend to accrue with far more ordinary research that -- although not worthy of a Nobel prize -- is essential to the daily pursuit of science. She reminds us of the importance of the kind of person who can reveal dimensions of science other than a singularly great discovery or insight," writes Paula Findlen in her fascinating article on Bassi.

Article: Paula Findlen, 'Laura Bassi and the city of learning', Physics World August 29, 2013