Émilie du Châtelet18th Century French Mathematician and Natural Philosopher
Who is Émilie du Châtelet?
Émilie was born Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet (Whew! That’s quite a name!) on December 17, 1706 in Paris and she died on September 10, 1749. She was known for her work in mathematics and natural philosophy.
Her Early Life and Education
Émilie was one of six kids and she was the only girl. Two of her brothers died when they were quite young. Three of her brothers live into adulthood and one of them lived to a relatively old age and became a Bishop in the Church. Although there isn’t a lot known about her childhood, it appears that her father recognized her intelligence and arranged for her to be tutored in a wide range of subjects, as well as fencing, riding, and music. She was fluent in 5 languages: French, Latin, Italian, Greek and German, which is why she was able to read, translate, and comment on Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
She was married at the age of 18 to the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont, which made her the Marquise du Castellet. Her husband was quite a bit older (34) which wasn’t unusual at the time. After giving birth to her three children and losing her youngest as an infant, she and her husband agreed that they would live apart and that she would resume her studies. Du Châtelet invited Voltaire to live at her country house at Cirey and they became lifelong friends and scientific collaborators. They set up a lab in her house and they each submitted their own entry to the 1738 Paris Academy prize contest on The Nature of Fire, because they didn’t agree. Both of them had their submissions published by the Academy when they each received an honorable mention. This made Émilie the first woman to ever have a paper published by the Paris Academy.
Émilie had three children with the Marquis, however, motherhood also cut Émilie’s life short. She became pregnant during an affair with the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert, she died shortly after giving birth to a daughter from a pulmonary embolism. She was only 42.
Her Contributions to Science
Her impact on the fields of math and physics came through her translation of Isaac Newton‘s 1687 book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica containing basic laws of physics. But Émilie went beyond simple translation and added commentary and she actually expanded his Newtonian Laws by suggesting that kinetic energy should be included in the conservation law for total energy.
Learn more about the works of Émilie du Châtele from Dr. Barbara J. Becker University of California, Irvine
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