Icons in Women's History - Émilie Du Châtelet

Myrra Dvorak

Throughout history, there have been many women who helped pave the way for advancements in the arts and sciences, but did so without any formal recognition from their field. One such woman was Émilie Du Châtelet, an accomplished French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher. While many scholars have focused on her Du Châtelet’s relationship with Voltaire, a famous French Enlightenment historian and philosopher, Du Châtelet in her own right achieved many great feats that advanced scientific understanding of the principles of energy conservation and completed many studies in natural philosophy. 

 

Born in 1706, Émilie was a bright and precocious child, much to her mother’s dismay but her father’s delight. Not only brilliant in mathematics and science, Du Châtelet also showed great interest in languages and spoke fluently in six different languages by age twelve. When denied access to higher education in the sciences, Du Châtelet instead entertained mathematicians and philosophers in her home, winning over their hearts and ultimately convincing her guests to let her study under them. Her mathematical mind made her particularly keen to gambling, a skill she used to pay for scientific books and equipment so she could continue her studies. Though her life was short (she died in 1749 at the age of forty-three), Émilie completed many works, including her own book on philosophy known as Institutions de Physique as well as a translation and commentary of Isaac Newton’s book on the basic laws of physics, Principia.  Émilie’s commentary provided new insights into conservation law and kinetic energy and she completed it while she also cared for her three children and carried another pregnancy. Her companion Voltaire acknowledged Du Châtelet’s brightness and her significant assistance with his own book on Newtonian physics, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton. After her death, Du Châtelet’s contributions to physics heavily influenced great minds of the French Enlightenment and continue to generate interest in the scientific community today.

 

In a time where women were discouraged and some even prohibited from pursuing academia in topics “unfit for young ladies”, Du Châtelet overcame the adversity posed by her upbringing and society by holding true to her passions. Never did she allow her exclusion from scientific communities prevent her from growing her talents or achieving her goals. Du Châtelet’s brilliance was certainly impressive, but what inspires us now is her resilience and dedication in the face of those who stood in her path. 

 

References:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/emilie-du-chatelet/

https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200812/physicshistory.cfm