StMU Research Scholars

Intellect Unappreciated: French Mathematician and Scientist Émilie du Châtelet

In the early Eighteenth Century, intellectual themes were not part of women’s duties, and it was frowned upon for women to research and question. That is why it is so extraordinary that Émilie du Châtelet, a French woman, became a mathematician and scientist. Voltaire told the king of Prussia, Frederick the Great, in a letter that Châtelet was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.”1

In 1706, when Émilie du Châtelet was born, French society had restraints on women that men did not face, such as not having real access to education. In Early Modern France, “the state would control the fathers, the fathers would control the families.”2 However, the Enlightenment Era did bring about enough change in France so that it was possible for Châtelet to become educated and advance in her career.3 She was lucky in the fact that she had an “unusually enlightened” father who gave Châtelet such a good education. She was educated in Latin, Italian, English, Spanish, Greek, Mathematics, Astronomy, Geography, and Poetry. Her mother also encouraged her and reflected a “cultivated background.”4

Châtelet changed and influenced society through her work on mathematics and scientific works. She published an introduction to Newtonian mechanics in 1740, and she even translated Newton’s Principia into French, with comments explaining the difficult mathematics to a popular audience.5 This was significant because not only could more of the population now read the works of Newton, but because of her commentary, more of the population could now understand it. It also introduced Newton into mainstream French scientific life. She went into detail on Newton’s theory of Gravity and she recast many of Newton’s theories and results in the “more powerful and suggestive notation of…. Calculus.”6 This had a great effect on the other scientists and mathematicians of the time. Châtelet’s work helped others to understand the complicated Newtonian system. By exploring Newton’s theses, and writing them for the educated public to read, Châtelet changed France.

Isaac Newton’s first edition of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principe Mathematica | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Châtelet was married in June 1725 to Florent-Claude, marquis du Châtelet and count of Lomont. However, after only three years with her, he left to pursue a military career and rarely visited her. This is when Châtelet began an affair with Voltaire, another lover of Math and Science.7 In order to get her works published, Châtelet had to have Voltaire co-author them with her, but only his name appeared on the front cover. Emily Grosholz writes that Voltaire had not mastered the mathematics from the Principia, but instead relied on Châtelet to “write the technical sections of the book” he was writing called Elements of Newton’s Philosophy.8 Châtelet also discussed research on the solar system, electricity, and magnetism. She had just finished her translation of the Principia, when she died of “childbirth fever,” from a scandalous pregnancy with Voltaire.9

In her unusual career, Émilie du Châtelet worked with other famed scholars and succeeded in making mathematics a language that many more people could understand. As a woman, she opened the doors for other women to follow in her footsteps and she changed the world with her concepts and understandings of these men’s topics.

 

  1.  Jerry Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, and Heather Streets-Salter, Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History, 4th ed., vol. 2 (McGraw Hill Education, 2016), 390.
  2. James B. Collins, “The Economic Role of Women in Seventeenth-Century France,” French Historical Studies 16, no. 2 (Fall 1989): 436.
  3. Ruth Hagengruber, “Emilie Du Châtelet, 1706–1749: Transformer of Metaphysics and Scientist,” The Mathematical Intelligencer 38, no. 4 (December 1, 2016): 1.
  4. Ruth Hagengruber, “Emilie Du Châtelet, 1706–1749: Transformer of Metaphysics and Scientist,” The Mathematical Intelligencer 38, no. 4 (December 1, 2016): 2.
  5. Emily Grosholz, “Candles in the Dark: Emilie Du Chatelet and Mary Somerville,” The Hudson Review, no. 4 (2013): 669.
  6. Emily Grosholz, “Candles in the Dark: Emilie Du Chatelet and Mary Somerville,” The Hudson Review, no. 4 (2013): 669.
  7. Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008, s.v. “Châtelet, Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier De Breteuil, Marquise Du.”
  8. Ruth Hagengruber, “Emilie Du Châtelet, 1706–1749: Transformer of Metaphysics and Scientist,” The Mathematical Intelligencer 38, no. 4 (December 1, 2016): 2-3.
  9. Emily Grosholz, “Candles in the Dark: Emilie Du Chatelet and Mary Somerville,” The Hudson Review, no. 4 (2013): 669.

81 Responses

  1. Mathematics is a wonderful subject that should be accessible to all. I find it extraordinary that Châtelet was able to beat the odds and have a wonderful career in mathematics. One of my biggest complaints when it comes to doing research on older mathematicians is the lack of diversity. I love learning about mathematicians of all manors and it continues to support my belief that anyone can be a mathematician. Châtelet did a very important thing with translating Principia as it allowed French mathematicians to understand Newton’s work. It is quite infuriating to hear that Châtelet could not publish her own work and goes to show that we have to fight against inequality in almost any aspect of our lives.

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