Émilie du Châtelet
Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise Du Châtelet, more commonly known as Émilie du Châtelet was the daughter of a member of the court of France’s King Louis XIV during a time in which women were not usually part of the scientific establishment. Émilie would be one of the rare exceptions to that reality as she was a physicist, natural philosopher, and mathematician whose work is still celebrated today.
Little is known about her education, but the fact she was intelligent goes without question and her father made arrangements for tutors in literature and science for du Châtelet and by the age of twelve she was fluent in Latin, Italian, French, Greek, and German. But her academic focus was in mathematics which she pursued with a passion.
Introduced officially to the French court at the age of 16, she loved the social aspects of this lifestyle and, as was customary at the time, she married at the age of 18. After giving birth to three children, two of which survived, she returned to her studies of mathematics at the age of 26 leaving behind most of the court intrigue of her earlier days.
Hiring tutors in mathematics she also engaged in academic debates with the best thinkers of the time including those starting to advocate for the ideas of motion published a few years prior by Isaac Newton. In fact her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica with her commentary, including her derivation of the notion of conservation of energy, is still the standard translation of the work into French and contributed to the acceptance of Newtonian science in Europe.
du Châtelet was a prolific author in many fields including philosophy, mathematics and the natural sciences. Writing her first book Institutions de physique two years later it was intended to be a textbook for her son that reviewed new ideas in science but it also incorporated ideas from leading thinkers of the age. Her translation of Newton’s Principia was her final work as she passed away from complications of childbirth shortly after finishing the text in 1749.
Written by Angela Goad