Emilie du Chatelet
Emilie du Chatelet grew up in a society where there were not many
education opportunities for women. She was born in Paris on December 17, 1706
and grew up in a household where marriage was the only way one could improve
their place in society. During her early childhood, Emilie began to show such
promise in the area of academics that soon she was able to convince her father
that she was a genius who needed attention. Provided with good education, she
studied and soon mastered Latin, Italian and English. She also studied Tasso,
Virgil, Milton and other great scholars of the time.
In spite of her talents in the area of languages, her true love was
mathematics. Her study in this area was encouraged be a family friend, M. de
Mezieres, who recognized her talent. Emilie’s work in mathematics was rarely
original or as captivating as that of other female mathematicians but it was
At the age of nineteen she married Marquis du Chatelet. During the
first two years of their marriage, Emilie gave birth to a boy and a girl, and
later at the age of 27 the birth of another son followed. Neither the children
or her husband deterred her from fully grasping and indulging in the social life
of the court.
Some of Emilie’s most significant work came from the period she spent
with Voltaire, one of the most intriguing and brilliant scholars of this time,
at Cirey-sur-Blaise. For the two scholars this was a safe and quiet place
distant from the turbulence of Paris and court life. She started studying the
works of Leibniz but she then started to analyze the discoveries of Newton. She
was extremely success in translating his whole book on the principals of
mathematics into French. She also added to this book an “Algebraical
Commentary” which very few general readers understood.
To realize the significance of her work for future French scholars it is
important to understand the social context within which she lived and worked.
One of Emilie’s most significant tutors was Pierre Louis de Maupertuis, a renown
mathematician and astronomer of the time. The struggle for success did not come
easy even for Emilie. As a student her curiosity and unrelentedness caused her
to place impossible demands on her tutors. Such nature caused her to engage in
dispute with her tutor at the time, Samuel Koenig. Their dispute was about the
subject of the infinitely small which ended their friendship.
In 1740 when Emilie’s book Institutions de physique was published,
Koenig started a rumor that the work was merely a rehash of his lessons with her.
Of course this mad Emilie very angry and for help she turned to the Academy of
Sciences and Maupertuis, with whom she had discussed there ideas long before she
engaged Koenig as her tutor. The intelligent scientists of the time were aware
of her capabilities of performing the work. However she did not feel that she
had received the support she deserved. This was the first time that she felt
that being a woman really worked against her.
The years Emilie spent with Voltaire at Cirey were some of the most
productive years of her life. Their scholarly work was very intense. When
there were no guests both of them stayed at their desks almost all day long.
In the spring of 1748, Emilie met and fell in love with the Marquis de
Saint-Lambert, a courtier and poet. This affair did not destroy her friendship
with Voltaire. Even when she found out that she was carrying Saint-Lambert’s
child, Voltaire was there to support her. Along with Voltaire and Saint-Lambert,
she was able to convince her husband that it was his child she was carrying.
During the course of her pregnancy in 1749 she finished her work with
Clairaut, an old friend with whom she had been studying, but her book on Newton
was not completed yet. She was determined to finish it and with that goal she
took on a very regimented lifestyle of only work.
In early September of 1749, she gave birth to a baby girl. For several
days, Emilie seemed happy and healthy. On September 10, 1749 she suddenly died.
Emilie’s death was soon followed by the death of the baby girl.
Emilie died at the age of 43. Among her greatest achievements were her
Institutions du physique and the translation of Newton’s Principia, which was
published after her death. Emilie du Chatelet was one of many women whose
contributions to the field of mathematics are