The Women Scientists of Bologna

Maria Cieslak-Golonka & Morten Bruno. American Scientist. Volume 88, Issue 1. Jan/Feb 2000.

Many of the modern sciences have their beginnings in the 18th century, also known as The Age of Reason, a time of logic, rationality and experimentation. But throughout most of Europe, this renaissance of the mind seemed to have been reserved exclusively for men. Refined European women with an inclination to study had few options available to them. Most upper-class women learned what they knew about the world by attending salons-lectures, concerts and discussions conducted in the parlors of Europe’s great houses. A university education was off limits to women almost everywhere in Europe–with one notable exception: Italy.

According to historian J. Burckhardt, the education of Italian girls from higher social classes was exactly the same as that of boys. Italian fathers thought that knowledge of the ancient cultures of Rome and Greece was the highest value to transmit to all posterity-including the girls. As H. J. Mozans explained in his book Woman in Science, the special attitude toward the education of girls in Italy stems from the old Roman spirit of freedom of which the Italians were the natural inheritors.

In the Universities of Salerno, Bologna, Padua and elsewhere in Italy, women competed on an equal footing with men, particularly in the fields of literature, natural sciences and medicine.

Among liberal Italian universities, one in particular stands apart. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088 as a law school and is the oldest in Europe. Early on, it earned a reputation for being a “student’s university,” because the students selected both the faculty and the rector. Not coincidentally, the University of Bologna is also distinguished by the unusual number of women scientists it graduated and hired during the 18th century. Intellectually gifted women from the upper classes and sometimes even from the less economically advantaged classes had access to a level of education not seen in most Western nations until the 20th century. Some of these women, as the following short biographies demonstrate, even flourished as scholars and scientists.

Laura Bassi (1711-1778)

Among the women professors of the University of Bologna, Laura Bassi was the pioneer. She became the first woman to earn a doctor of philosophy degree, and she was the university’s first female professor.

Born in Bologna, Bassi soon evidenced a prodigious intellect and an excellent memory, and she started studying logic, metaphysics and natural philosophy. At the age of 21 Bassi defended her thesis in the manner traditional for the university-in public. Her examiners included five prominent philosophers from the University of Bologna, the then Cardinal Lambertini (later to become Pope Benedict XIV) and several senators. Naturally the event stirred a great deal of public curiosity; so much so that the venue had to be changed to accommodate the crowd that had gathered to watch. Bassi acquitted herself masterfully and was granted her degree. Soon afterwards, Bassi became the first woman to occupy a chair in physics at the university. However, the university was not so liberal as to actually allow Bassi to give lectures at the university. This remained a right reserved solely for men.

Bassi was therefore obliged to conduct her lectures, as well as her experiments, in her home and at her own expense. She also continued her own studies, which included both literature and science. But of these, she regarded only science as truly valuable. She focused on mechanics, hydraulics and anatomy, and was particularly intrigued with the works of Newton. She conducted physics tutorials and experiments for her students throughout her academic career, and for over 30 years, she offered an annual public lecture on experimental physics.

Her academic duties were combined with an active family life. In 1738 she married a physician, Giuseppe Verati, and together they had 12 children. Historians have speculated that her obligations to her family and her students left her little time to look for a publisher for her scholarly work. As a result it is difficult to evaluate her scientific output, except by reputation.

Judging from the reactions of great scholars of her day, however, her fame spread throughout Europe. In a letter dated November 23, 1744, Voltaire himself petitions her help in securing election to the Bolognese Academy of Sciences, to which Bassi had already been elected.

Dear Madam,

I have been wishing to journey to Bologna in order to be able one day to tell my countrymen I have seen Signora Bassi … There is not a Bassi in London, and I should be more happy to be a member of the Academy of Bologna than that of the English, although it has produced a Newton. If your protection should obtain for me this title, of which I am so ambitious, the gratitude of my heart will be equal to my admiration for yourself …

As Bassi’s fame grew abroad, so did her academic legitimacy at home. A letter from the university addressed to her and dated April 14, 1750, informs her of the university’s decision to raise her salary and pay some of her research and teaching expenses. The senate of Bologna commissioned a medal to commemorate her, and a street in Bologna was named for her. But perhaps her most enduring achievement is the legacy she left to the women who followed her. Bassi’s erudition and life-long achievement in research and teaching made it easier for other women to obtain university appointments. Most important, her successors were accorded full professorial privileges, without restrictions based on sex.

Anna-Morandi Manzolini (1716-1774)

In the 18th century, anatomy stood at the vanguard of medical research, and the public was fascinated. Public autopsies were combined with university lectures in the Teatro Anatomico, the university’s medical amphitheater. There, students and public alike looked on while a professor sat on the podium and indicated with a long pointer the bones and muscles being exposed by assistants who actually performed the autopsies. Anatomical knowledge gleaned from these autopsies was supplemented by wax models of the body’s organs. In 1742 Ercole Lelli, a painter and sculptor, became the first to reconstruct the human skeleton and muscles in detail in wax. He was assisted in his work by Giovanni Manzolini, who later became a professor at the University of Bologna and set up his own workshop. In his work, Manzolini was aided by a childhood friend, Anna Morandi. Morandi would later marry Manzolini, but more important, she became what many considered to be the finest practitioner of artistic anatomy.

Morandi did not set out to become an anatomist. In fact she was fearful of corpses, and her early education focused on drawing and sculpting. After overcoming her fear, she combined her keen observations and her artistic talent to produce very faithful reproductions of organs and other anatomical systems. Neither her marriage to Manzolini nor the birth of her six children prevented her from continuing her anatomical studies.

Soon she achieved such fame that one of the most renowned physicians in the city commissioned anatomical models from her for his new school of midwifery. When her husband fell ill and could no longer teach, Morandi was officially charged with delivering his lectures. After her husband died in 1760, Morandi was elected to a professorship at the university. Nine years later, she was named the anatomy department’s chief model maker.

Morandi is frequently cited as the first to make wax models of internal organs. In particular her work showing details of the abdominal cavity and the uterus gained her special notice. In addition, she produced a model of the ear that could be taken apart so medical students could gain a better understanding of the ear’s internal structures. Ever mindful of her own distaste for corpses, Morandi tried to soften the reality of autopsy by maximizing the artistry in her models. She used warm woods in the bases and pedestals of her models. These models continued to be used didactically for centuries.

Her fame spread all over Europe. In 1769, during a visit to Bologna, Emperor Joseph 11 of Austria made a point of seeing her famous collection. He was so impressed that he bought a few of the models for himself, presented Morandi with a gold medal and became the patron of the Anatomical Museum back at home in Vienna. At the invitation of Empress Katherine II, Morandi traveled to Russia to give lectures and to be inducted into the Imperial Academy of Sciences.

If one visits the Anatomical Museum at the University of Bologna, one can still see Morandi’s models, including her self-portrait. The self-portrait is a potent visual metaphor for the woman scientist of the time and reminds us of her dual obligations. In it, Morandi is working at a dissection all the while dressed appropriately for a woman of her economic and social class-in silks with diamond and pearl jewelry.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799)

Maria Agnesi was a brilliant linguist, a talented mathematician and a thoroughly reluctant scholar.

Agnesi was the eldest of 21 children born to Pietro Agnesi, a professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna and his wife, Anna Brio Agnesi. The Agnesi household was a center for the intellectual elite of Bologna, and Maria Gaetana was encouraged to participate in deliberations on philosophy and mathematics with her parents’ distinguished guests. Agnesi was also an extremely gifted linguist. She mastered French by the time she was five years old and a number of ancient languages by the time she was nine. Also at the age of nine, Agnesi wrote a Latin text. By the time she was 11, she had mastered seven languages in all. In 1738, she published a compilation of the discussions that had taken place in her home, called Propositiones Philosophicae. Yet, in spite of her achievements, it was her own deep desire to pursue a religious life. She asked her father to allow her to join a convent, but he strongly encouraged her to continue her studies instead.

She obeyed him, focusing her attention on mathematics. She devoted herself to algebra and geometry in her studies with Professor Ramiro Rampinelli. At his urging, Agnesi compiled the book that made her famous-Instituzioni Analitiche (Analytical Institutions), which for the first time provided a synthesis of many different branches of mathematics.

The book was published in 1748 and was dedicated to the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. In the dedication, Agnesi wrote, “Nothing has encouraged me so much as your, Madam, being a woman, which luckily applies also to me.” Historian Carla Vettori Sandor writes in her chapter in Alma Mater Studiorum, La Prezenza Femminile as pointing out that sections of this dedication reveal a complex personality, humble and at the same time acutely aware of her own worth.

And really if it were ever possible to justify boldness of a woman trying to trace a quick rise of science moving amidst Infinity, it should happen in the times when a woman reigns and her reign is commonly admired. In this epoch, which in spite of all evil incidents will be given a bright and elevated name after you, Madam, all women should serve the glory of their sex and each should contribute as much as she can to the growth of fame which surrounds you.

In response, the Empress sent Maria a diamond ring and a letter enclosed in a diamond–encrusted crystal casket.

Instituzioni was written in two volumes. The first focuses on algebra and its applications in geometry. One chapter describes a curve that has become well known as “Agnesi’s curl,” or sometimes, “versiera della Agnesi,” which has been mistranslated to “the witch of Agnesi.” This curve, expressed by the formula X^sup 2^y = a ^sup 2^(a – y) was first described in the 17th century by Pierre de Fermat. The second volume contains an analysis of differential and integral calculus.

The work became well known because its terminology constituted a basis for subsequent scientific works, dictionaries and encyclopedias. The famous mathematician Joseph Louis de Lagrange was known to have said that his own vocabulary and style was derived to a great extent from Agnesi’s. The French Academy of Sciences offered the highest praise it could, noting in a letter that “if the regulations permitted it, ‘Mademoiselle Agnesi’ would be admitted to the Academy”

French mathematician M. Montigny wrote Agnesi the following:

Allow me, Madam, to add my particular appreciation to the applause of the whole Academy. It honored me by appointing me to express the opinion of all its members about the beautiful work presented to us. The task gives me pleasure and the more so since I have been acquainted with your name and talents for ten years. You were very young and already famous in 1740 when I visited Italy. Mrs. Bassi, Mr. Zanotti, the secretary of the Academy and many other famous people urged me to meet you and even announced my visit to you; nevertheless because of circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to undertake the trip. I had to return via Genoa and go to France and for that reason Milan was not on the route of my journey. I was extremely sorry and my regret is even greater today when I have read your book. I shall for ever remain unconsoled that I was not fortunate enough to meet you. It increases the pleasure with which I will present in my country the work which brings so much fame to Italy; a very useful work for which we have been waiting long and which excels all attempts of this kind, such as analyses of Reynaud and treatises published recently in England. None of them leads so far and so quickly all those who wish to learn mathematical sciences.

I particularly admire the art, with which many discoveries of numerous geometricians obtained in various ways, dispersed in different works constitute here the basis of a uniform method.

One can share in the fame of inventors, one can perfect oneself and develop the art of analysis if one can do it in the way so elegant and orderly as that which reigns in your, Madam, work.

If correspondence with French geometricians can give you pleasure, I offer all my assistance and send you my deepest appreciation and regards.

Agnesi may have been denied admission to the French Academy, but she was admitted into the Academy of Sciences in Bologna. In 1750, she was offered an honorary chair at the University of Bologna in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.

The evidence suggests that none of this celebrity brought Agnesi any pleasure. Most historians believe she undertook her mathematical career entirely to please her father. Upon her father’s death in 1752, Agnesi abandoned mathematics and the academy to care for the elderly, the poor and the sick until her death in 1799.

Maria Dalle Donne (1778-1842)

Maria Dalle Donne was born in the small village of Roncastaldo on the outskirts of Bologna. Ordinarily a peasant girl from modest surroundings would not be encouraged to study. But there is reason to believe that Dalle Donne was born with a physical deformity that may have led her family to think she would never marry. Under the circumstances, her family might have been disposed toward educating the girl. In any event, Dalle Donne’s cousin was a priest, who recognized her talents and saw to her education. Eventually, he enlisted the help of Luigi Rodati, a physician, who taught her himself and later recruited professors in physics, surgery and pathology at the University of Bologna to instruct her. Her tutors unanimously decided that Dalle Donne should study medicine, by which she could earn her livelihood.

In 1799, Dalle Donne presented her dissertation and took the exam that made her the first female doctorate in medicine. She passed maxima cum laude, with highest honors.

Upon her graduation, her next patron became the count Prospero Ranuzzi Cospi, who also happened to be a physician. The count granted her an annual scholarship and presented her with his own collection of medical books and equipment. The scholarship was doubled after his death.

In 1800, Dalle Donne published three important scientific papers. The first on anatomy and physiology was a review and commentary on work previously done on female reproduction and fertility, fetal malformations and blood circulation in the uterus. The second paper was very important, since it suggested for the first time that diseases be classified on the basis of symptoms. Finally, the third paper focused on midwifery and the care of newborns.

In 1829, Dalle Donne became only the second woman, after Laura Bassi, to become a member of the prestigious Ordine de Benedettini Academici Pensionati, in which she was awarded the title of “Academic.”

Three years later, Dalle Donne became the Director of the Department of Midwifery at the University of Bologna. Dalle Donne had a reputation as a stimulating lecturer. She was emphatic about the need to educate young women who practiced midwifery in rural areas. She desperately hoped to modernize midwifery and eliminate what she considered to be the more barbaric techniques commonly practiced at the time in remote areas.

Most important, however, Dalle Donne accepted girls into her program without regard for their ability to pay. Perhaps because of her own modest origins, she herself assisted talented, but financially deprived girls. In this way, she brought some measure of democracy to the education of women.