Emilie du Chatelet

Born in Paris on December 17, 1706, Emilie du Chatlet grew up in a household where the art of courting was the only way one could recieve a place in society. During her early childhood, Emilie began to show great improvement in the area of academics that soon she was able to convince her father that she needed attention. She studied Latin, Italian and English. She also studied Tasso, Virgil, Milton and other great scholars. In spite of her talents in the area of languages, her true love was mathematics.

Emilie’s cleverness was outstanding in other areas as well. At the age of nineteen she married a man named Marquis du Chatelet. Emilie had conquered the heart of Voltaire, one of most intriguing and brilliant scholars of this time. As Voltaire notes “We long employed all our attention and powers upon Leibniz and Newton; Mme du Chatelet attached herself first to Leibniz, and explained one part of his system in a book exceedingly well written, entitled Institutions de physique”.

However she soon abandoned the work of Leibniz and applied herself to the discoveries of the great Newton. She was extremely successful in translating his whole book on the principals of mathematics into French. The years Emilie spent with Voltaire at Cirey were some of the most productive years of her life. When there were no guests both of them remained tied to their desks. In the spring of 1748, Emilie met and fell in love with the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, a courtier and very minor poet. This affair, however, did not destroy her friendship with Voltaire.

Even when he found out that she was carrying Saint-Lambert’s child, Voltaire was there to support her. With the help of Voltaire and Saint-Lambert, she was able to convince her husband that it was his child she was carrying. In early September of 1749, she gave birth to a baby girl. As Voltaire describes it: “The little girl arrives while her mother was at her writing desk, scribbling some Newtonian theories, and the newly born baby was placed temporarily on a quarto volume of geometry, while her mother gathered together her papers and was put to bed”.

On September 10, 1749 she died suddenly at the age of 43. As many authors note, during the course of her short life, Emilie was a truly unique woman and scholar. Among her greatest achievements were her Institutions du physique and the translation of Newton’s Principia, which was published after her death along with a “Preface historique” by Voltaire. Emilie du Chatelet was one of many women whose contributions have helped shape the course of mathematics.


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