Astronomy, mathematics and physics were popular fields of study for many of the brightest 18th-century women with access to money and books. Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil was one such woman. She was the daughter of the French court’s chief of protocol and her father rather unusually for the time encouraged her education. By the time she was twelve she was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German.
Gabrielle-Emilie was a precocious teenager as well as a child genius; she liked to dance, was a passable performer on the harpsichord, sang opera, and was an amateur actress. Being short of money for books, she used her mathematical skills to devise highly successful strategies for gambling. Her mother Gabrielle-Anne was horrified tried to have her clever daughter sent to a convent.
In 1725 Gabrielle-Emilie married the Marquis du Chatelet at the age of 19 and lived the life of a courtier at the French court. She bore her husband three children, but at age 27 she began studying mathematics seriously and then branched into physics. This interest intensified when she started an affair with the philosopher Voltaire. Their friendship, if not their relationship, was lifelong and one of mutual respect and admiration.
Her philosophical magnum opus, Institutions de Physique or Foundations of Physics, was published in 1740 when she was 34. It was an immediate success, circulated widely, and republished and translated into several other languages within two years of its publication. With a growing reputation in the world of men, she participated in the famous vis viva debate concerning the calculation of the motion of orbiting bodies – the planets. However, Du Chatelet’s most lasting contribution to science was her French translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which is still in use today.
At age 43, she fell in love with a young military officer and became pregnant; she died following complications during the birth of their child. Posthumously, her ideas were included in the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.
Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Wikipedia, Illustration: The Granger Collection, New York.
Iona McNeal, is a character in my new novel, Sinclair. Iona is a bright young woman, the daughter of the head of Edinburgh’s medical school. She studies mathematics, physics and astronomy at home. You can find out what happens to her in my latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 and on Kindle
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