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What discoveries did Émilie du Châtelet make in science and philosophy?

Bruno Cooke December 17, 2021
Madame Du Chatelet
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Born 1706, Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, or Émilie du Châtelet for short, was a French natural philosopher and mathematician – and longtime companion to the Enlightenment writer Voltaire (real name: François-Marie Arouet). What scientific discoveries did Émilie du Châtelet make during her lifetime, and what was her cause of death?

What discoveries did Émilie du Châtelet make in the field of philosophy?

Du Châtelet wrote several philosophical essays of significance. She also produced famous translations of major works by anglophone figures such as Bernard Mandeville and Isaac Newton.

Her translation of Newton’s magnum opus Principia Mathematica, published after her death, is still considered the standard French translation.

Famously, Voltaire wrote in a letter to his friend King Frederick II of Prussia that Du Châtelet was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman”.

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Per Sasha Mandic’s short biography of Emilie du Châtelet, she mastered Latin, Italian and English, and studied Tasso, Virgil, Milton, and other great scholars.

According to Ruth Hagengruber’s research into the philosophical and scientific contributions made by Emilie du Châtelet to contemporary discourse, she opposed English philosopher John Locke’s ideas about thinking matter, arguing instead that one must verify knowledge through experience.

What did Émilie du Châtelet contribute to science?

Du Châtelet’s translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica is arguably her most significant contribution to science.

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However, she also wrote extensively about the nature of fire and light; advocated for the then nascent idea of kinetic energy; and devised a financial arrangement similar to modern derivatives in order to pay back a debt of several thousand francs.

Her monograph, Discours sur le bonheur (Discourse on Happiness), was a cornerstone of proto-feminist literature published posthumously in 1779.

What was Émilie du Châtelet’s cause of death?

In the late 1740s, Du Châtelet became pregnant with Jean François de Saint-Lambert’s child. She had previously given birth to three children, two of which had died in infancy.

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She gave birth to her fourth child, Stanislas-Adélaïde, on September 4, 1749. Du Châtelet was 42 at the time. A week later, she died from a pulmonary embolism; her daughter died 18 months later.

It was in the year of her death that she completed her translation, into French, plus commentary, of Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Émilie du Châtelet’s contributions to science and philosophy are often overshadowed by those of her longtime partner Voltaire. She and Voltaire developed a friendship starting in 1733. She was the first woman to have a scientific work published by the Academy in France.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.