Emilie du Chatelet—Female Scientist
During 1739 du Chatelet worked on her book, Institutions de physique, which was published in 1740. After the publication of this book, one of her tutors, Samuel Koenig, stated that work that was done for the book, specifically around Leibniz’s philosophy, was his. And, though he indeed, tutored her on Leibniz’s ideas, there is no historical evidence to show that the work in the book was anyone’s but hers. Frustrated with the accusations, Emilie took her concerns to the Academy of Sciences and Maupertuis, as she had discussed her ideas on the subject with them long before Koenig was her instructor. The scientists at the Academy were fully aware of her talents and strengths as a scientist. However, Emilie felt that they did not back her to the extent they could have. Emilie was keenly aware that the Academy’s response would have been different had she not been a woman.
When looking at Emilie’s story it is important to take into consideration the times she was living in. In most cases, the only way women could make advancements was by progressing up the social ladder—by marrying. Interestingly enough, there is one reference to her younger years that implies that, because she was not as pretty as other women she was encouraged in her studies, “It was the opinion of those close to her that she would have no great beauty, so excellent tutors and governesses were engaged to foster her intellect.” (Wichita Article, para. 2). It’s ironic to think that because of a lack of beauty she was encouraged in her studies.
There are examples in her story that show that she was aware of the discrepancies between how men and women were treated. In one example, she was banned from a café where many of the area’s top mathematicians, astronomers and physicists would meet (as all women were). In an act of defiance she showed back up a week later, dressed as a man. “It was not an attempt to fool people, just to make a statement on what she believed was a ridiculous rule. She was allowed in and served by the management…” (from O’Connor and Robertson Chatelet Biography, para. 12).
Later in her life, du Chatelet began work on her most notable work, the translation of Newton’s Principia. The completed work appeared in 1759, Voltaire wrote in the preface, “Mme du Châtelet has rendered a double service to posterity with her translation of the Principia and enriching it with a commentary. … As regards the algebraic commentary, it is much more than a translation. Mme du Châtelet based this part on the ideas of Clairaut. She worked out the calculations and after each chapter was completed, M Clairaut checked and corrected it. … M Clairaut had the calculations checked by a third person after they were written out so that it was morally impossible that an error would slip into the work due to an oversight … It is more astonishing that a woman should have been capable of a task which required such depth and hard work …” (M de Voltaire, Preface on the Marquise du Châtelet, in I Newton, Principes mathématiques de la philosophie naturelle. Tome I, II, Reprint of the 1759 French edition (Sceaux, 1990) from O’Connor and Robertson Chatelet Biography, para. 25.)
In 1748, Emilie met and fell in love with the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, a courtier and poet. Interestingly enough, this affair did not harm her relationship with Voltaire, as he remained supportive of her, even upon hearing the news that she was pregnant with Saint-Lambert’s child. In fact, Voltaire remained so committed to her that he helped Emilie devise a plan wherein they would convince Emilie’s husband that he was the father of the child.
It was 1749 and throughout her pregnancy Emilie worked tirelessly to complete the work on Principia. By many accounts she would get up quite early and work through the day and late into the night, giving up her social life with the exception of visits from a few close friends. Emilie’s baby arrived suddenly on September 2, 1749. Interestingly enough, Voltaire, Saint-Lambert as well as Emilie’ husband were all present at the birth of her child. Two days after the birth Voltaire wrote to a friend of Emilie’s, “Mme du Châtelet informs you that this night, being at her desk working on Newton, she felt a little call. The little call was a daughter, who appeared in an instant. She was laid on a quarto book of geometry. The mother has gone to lie down and, if she were not asleep, she would be writing to you.” (from O’Connor and Robertson Chatelet Biography, para. 27).
After the birth, Emilie seemed to be recovering nicely. However, on the 9th of September it is reported that she did not feel well and was running a fever. She retired to her bedroom with a copy of the manuscript of Newton’s Principia with her. She added the date “10 September 1749” to it, then soon after lost consciousness and died. Again, her husband, Voltaire and Saint-Lambert were all present. The baby girl died soon after. Voltaire wrote, “She believed that death was coming long before she was taken from us. From then on her one thought was to use the little time she thought that remained to complete the work she had undertaken and so cheat death of stealing what she considered was part of herself. Hard and persevering work, continual lack of sleep when rest might have saved her life, led to the death she had foreseen.” (from O’Connor and Robertson Chatelet Biography, para. 25).
Emilie’s death highlights the line she walked between the life and career typical of a man, and the reality of being a woman in the 1700’s. For all of her knowledge and advancements in science—a solely male-endeavor in the day, it was the most inherent feminine task that killed her—bearing a child.