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Five Things to Know About French Enlightenment Genius Émilie du Châtelet

She was brilliant and unconventional, but her life had a tragic end

The face of a genius. (Wikimedia Commons)
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You probably haven’t heard of Émilie du Châtelet. But without her contributions, the French Enlightenment of the 1700s would have looked much different. Here are five things to know about this groundbreaking, tragic figure.

She was a polymath who ignored the gender norms of her time

Du Châtelet, born on December 17, 1706 as Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, was born at a time when women weren't normally active in public intellectual life. Unlike most women of the time, she had a lot of advantages that allowed her fierce intellect to thrive. For one thing, her family was wealthy and influential. “Her father, Louis Nicolas le Tonnelier de Breteuil, was a high ranking official of the court of Louis XIV,” writes APS News. “The de Breteuil family was part of French aristocratic society, and as such they entertained often. Distinguished scientists and mathematicians were frequent visitors to the household.”

As a young woman, Du Châtelet learned to speak six languages and was educated in math and science among her other studies, APS News writes. Although women weren’t supposed to be interested in such things, her father recognized her talent and ambition, and introduced her to his scientific visitors.

She did her own work...

As an author, du Châtelet is remembered for Institutions de physique, a physics textbook that engaged with physics ideas current in France during her lifetime and made its own propositions.

“Published in 1740, her Institutions shows the influence of Descartes and logical premises from Leibniz that continued to govern scientific inquiry into the twentieth century, and illustrates the ways in which French thinkers challenged and corrected some of Newton’s mechanical theories,” writes Stacy Wykle for Ransom Center Magazine.

...but also important translations

Du Châtelet is also remembered as a translator, particularly of some of the works of Newton as well as Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, a parable about status and economics that probably had some interesting resonances in the luxe circles that du Châtelet ran in. Translating, editing and annotating works gave her a power that her own work probably would not have—not because of its potential greatness but because of the obstacles she faced as a female public intellectual.

“In their pivotal role as the ‘négocians,’ or the gatekeepers of cross-Channel intellectual exchange, translators in the Enlightenment wielded enormous power and influence,” writes scholar Marie-Pascale Pieretti. In the introduction to her translation of The Fable of the Bees, she writes, du Châtelet “emphasized the connection between her condition as a woman writer and her activity as a translator. Citing educational and social reasons, du Châtelet provides in her preface an exemplary articulation of difficulties facing women who hoped to engage in public intellectual life.” She deplored the fact that women were excluded from working in the sciences and publishing their own work, and said that translation was a way for them to enter those fields through a side door.

She had an epic intellectual and romantic affair with Voltaire

From about the age of 27 onward, du Châtelet was engaged in an epic affair with Voltaire, writes Esther Inglis-Arkells for io9. Her husband didn’t mind: “This might have been because Voltaire contributed to sprucing up the run-down Châtelet estate,” writes Inglis-Arkells. “Émilie certainly didn't have money for it. She spent her cash on math tutors.”

With Voltaire, she retired from Paris to the country estate and conducted a more private version of the public intellectual’s life that she couldn’t live in the city. She wrote Institutions de physique while at the estate in Cirey during this period, because she couldn’t find a good textbook incorporating current ideas about physics, writes Betty Mayfield for the College Mathematics Journal.

Du Châtelet and Voltaire had huge influence on one another. One of the ways this shows up is in their mutual engagement with the work of Isaac Newton, which wasn’t well known in France. French intellectuals such as Descartes had their own ideas about how the physical universe worked. Sadly, du Châtelet is more remembered today for the fact that she slept with Voltaire than for any of this intellectual labor, writes Mayfield.

She did some of her best work while pregnant in her forties

Du Châtelet pursued her own interests throughout her life, in direct contradiction to what was expected of women. Tragically, however, she couldn’t escape the dangers of being female in a time before reliable birth control and gynecological care. When she became pregnant again at the age of 41 or 42, she was horrified, because she knew it was probably a death sentence.

This news began a race against time for du Châtelet. She and Voltaire had collaboratively translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica, with only Voltaire getting full credit--she was just thanked in the introduction. That translation was a more simple explanation of Newton’s ideas, however, not the full work.

“Either the lack of credit or the lack of specificity bothered Châtelet,” Inglis-Arkells writes. “She began again, translating the work directly, and getting across all the mathematics and science involved.”

Trying to get it done before her likely impending death, writes Becky Ferreira for Motherboard, du Châtelet “worked 18-hour days during her pregnancy, pumping out her translation with single-minded urgency, and died a week after the birth of a daughter.” Her completed work was published post-humously, with an introduction by Voltaire, and was for many years the only French-language translation of Newton's work, writes APS News.

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