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Châtelet, Émilie du (1706–1749)

Châtelet, Émilie du (1706–1749)

French scientist, philosopher, and enlightenment feminist, beloved by Voltaire. Name variations: Emilie du Chatelet; Marquise du Chatelet or Chastellet; Marquise du Châtelet-Laumont; Émilie de Châtelet. Pronunciation: SHA-te-let. Born Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil on December 17, 1706, in Paris, France; died in Lunéville, France, on September 7, 1749; buried at Church of Saint-Jacques; daughter of Gabrielle-Anne de Froulay and Louis-Nicholas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, baron of Preuilly; educated by tutors; married Florent-Claude, marquis du Châtelet-Laumont, 1725; children: (with Marquis du Châtelet) Françoise Gabrielle Pauline (b. 1726), Louis Marie Florent (b. 1727), and an unnamed son who died in infancy; (with Marquis de Saint-Lambert) unnamed daughter (b. September 1, 1749, who died in infancy).

Father died (1728); met Voltaire in Paris (1733); government ordered Voltaire's arrest (June 10, 1734); moved with Voltaire to Cirey (1734); began translation of Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1735); Voltaire allowed to return to Paris briefly (March 1735); began work on Grammaire raisonnée (1736); entered the French Academy of Sciences essay competition (1737); had dispute with Academy of Science over the dynamic force in matter (1739); published the Institutions de physique (1740); began work on Discours sur le bonheur (1744); was guest at the court of Stanislas Leszczynski, ex-king of Poland (1748); met poet Marquis de Saint-Lambert (1748); completed translation of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica

from Latin into French (1749); made second visit to Lunéville (1749).


Lettres sur le Elément de la philosophie de Newton (1738); Institutions de physique (1740); Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu (1744); Discours sur le bonheur (1750); Principes Mathématique de la philosophie naturelle, par M. Newton, traduits par feue Madame la Marquise du Châtelet (1759).

Eighteenth-century France offered few educational opportunities for women. Young girls were customarily sent to convents to await the age of marriage. Their education was rudimentary; domestic skills and social graces comprised the bulk of their instruction. As adults, woman were expected to be decorous. They were not frowned upon if they were bright, but in general it was considered unnecessary. Scholarship was the exclusive preserve of the male aristocracy. It is therefore ironic that such an age should produce a woman of the stature of Émilie du Châtelet.

The daughter of Gabrielle-Anne de Froulay and Louis-Nicholas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, baron de Preuilly and chief of protocol at the court of Louis XV, Émilie was born in the family's fashionable Paris home overlooking the Tuileries Gardens. Her father initially despaired of his daughter's prospects.

My youngest is an odd creature destined to become the homeliest of women. Were it not for the low opinion I hold of several bishops, I would prepare her for a religious life and let her hide in a convent.

Since the family consensus was that Émilie had little chance of securing a husband, it was decided that she would be provided with a good education. Her early intellectual promise was soon evident, and in the spirit of Renaissance Humanism her father saw to it that she received the finest tutoring available. Émilie acquired a thorough grounding in languages, Latin, English and Italian, and also studied the writings of Virgil, Milton, Tasso, Horace, and Cicero. But her true passion was mathematics. Years after her death, Voltaire described her skills of calculations: "I saw her, one day, divide a nine-figure number by nine other figures, in her head, without any help, in the presence of a geometer unable to keep up with her."

Paternal prognostications aside, by age 19, Émilie was an exceptionally tall and surprisingly attractive young woman, and her father arranged a match with the Marquis du Châtelet-Laumont, an uninspiring, if up-and-coming young army officer, who owned a number of country estates. For the Marquis du Châtelet, marriage seems to have been largely a means of securing an heir.

The freedom granted to married women in 18th-century France was considerably greater than the freedom accorded to single women. Throughout their marriage, the marquis was frequently away with his regiment. Left to her own devices, Mme du Châtelet threw herself into the whirlwind of Parisian social life. Her time was taken up by theater, expensive clothes, gambling, and romantic liaisons. In an age when lovers were almost a social obligation, she had affairs with the Marquis de Guébriant, whom she supposedly took poison over, and Louis François Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, a notorious wit and infamous womanizer. Richelieu, however, was to remain a lifelong friend.

Descriptions of Émilie du Châtelet varied according to the partisanship of the observer. Mme du Deffand described her as thin and flat chested, with large limbs, a small head, bad teeth, coarse hair, and a weather-beaten complexion. Conversely, Cideville, a friend of Voltaire's and an admirer of Émilie, dwelt at length on her large soft eyes, and her witty and intelligent expression. No doubt the truth of the matter lies somewhere between. While Émilie du Châtelet was no Madame de Pompadour , she was nevertheless a handsome woman who attracted her share of admirers.

In the eyes of fashionable Parisian society, Mme du Châtelet scorned the conventions of her class in two unforgivable ways. Firstly, she refused to neglect her intellectual pursuits and recruited the best European minds to tutor her. Secondly, she stole Voltaire's heart and company from their midst. Already considered one of the most notable thinkers of the 18th century, Voltaire met Émilie when he was 39. She was 27, and the mother of three. Voltaire appreciated Mme du Châtelet's brilliant scientific mind, and this seems to have formed the basis of their attraction.

During the first year of their relationship, Voltaire's Lettres philosophique, also known as the Lettres sur Les Anglais, were published in France without his permission. The bold re-examination of literature, religion, government, science, and human nature, which was being undertaken by enlightenment scholars such as Voltaire, was aggressively countered by official censorship, the burning of subversive books, imprisonment and exile. On June 10, 1734, Voltaire's Lettres were condemned to be publicly burned and an order for his arrest was issued. The violent reaction of the government forced him to flee.

At length, the crisis abated and Émilie suggested that Voltaire retire with her to Cirey, the ancestral château of the du Châtelets. Here the pair lived for the next 15 years. Their first year in the country was far from idyllic, however. The estate was in disrepair, verging on collapse, and Voltaire wrote amusingly of the renovations:

Mme. du Châtelet is going to put windows where I have put doors. She is changing staircases into chimneys and chimneys into staircases. Where I have instructed the workmen to construct a library, she tells them to place a salon. My salon she will make into a bath closet. She is going to plant lime trees where I proposed to place elms, and where I have planted herbs and vegetables (at last, my own kitchen gardens, and I was already taking great pride in them!) nothing will make her happy but a flower bed.

Of these new domestic arrangements, Émilie asked the Duc de Richelieu to explain the situation to her husband, the marquis: "Speak to him of Voltaire, simply but with concern and friendship and try, in particular, to make him feel that it is madness to be jealous of a wife with whom one is satisfied, whom one esteems and who behaves well." Like many husbands of the day, the Marquis du Châtelet chose to ignore the situation. When not away with the army, he took up residence with his wife and Voltaire, and although the two men inhabited the same house, they lived in disparate, unrelated universes. Thus friction, impolite at the best of times, was kept to a minimum.

Of the tutors that Émilie employed over the years, perhaps the most influential was Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis, a highly respected astronomer and mathematician. Both Maupertuis and Voltaire acknowledged an intellectual debt of gratitude to Descartes. However, both men had also traveled to England at the turn of the century and had been exposed to the work of Isaac Newton. Newton's theory of universal gravity and his laws of motion fired both with messianic zeal and a desire to convert the nationalistic scientific community of France.

Mme du Châtelet was a determined and demanding scholar. In 1734, she hired Samuel Koenig, a protégé of Maupertuis, to teach her algebra for three hours a day. She was also writing her first book, the Institutions de physique (Institution of Physics), intent on a modern replacement for Rohault's textbook on physics, which had been written 80 years before. Mme du Châtelet's work challenged Descartes' assertion that the acquisition of knowledge was based upon an innate "inner sentiment." Rather, Émilie argued that the acquisition of knowledge was dependant upon logic and rationality. The Institutions de physique established Émilie du Châtelet's reputation as a scientist and a scholar. Upon its publication, however, a scandal erupted concerning the book's authorship. Koenig claimed that the ideas contained in the Institutions de physique were simply a recapitulation of his own lessons to Mme du Châtelet. Naturally, she was infuriated:

I didn't have time to look for the ideas I needed in the big quarto volumes. I begged M. Koenig to make extracts for me of the chapters I required, which he was kind enough to do and on this I partly based my work…. No sooner had I left than M. Koenig told everyone … that I had written a book that was worth nothing, that he had made me write another and that I had not paid him enough for his trouble.

In 1752, after her death, Koenig showed his true colors by publishing a forged letter from Leibnitz. This, however, came too late to vindicate Émilie.

I found, in 1733, a young woman who thought as I did, and who decided to stay several years in the country, cultivating her mind.


Mme du Châtelet and Voltaire set up a scientific laboratory at Cirey. Their first experiment was an investigation of the properties of fire. In 1738, when the French Academy of Sciences announced an essay competition on the subject, Voltaire was determined to win. Émilie entered the competition secretly. She wrote to Maupertuis shortly after submitting her entry.

I believe that you will have been very surprised that I was bold enough to write a memoir for the Académe…. I did not tell M. de Voltaire because I did not wish to displease him. Moreover, I opposed almost all his ideas in my work.

Neither essay won the competition, though Émilie's did preempt future research by postulating that fire had no weight and that both heat and light came from the same source. The Academy was so impressed by both works that they agreed to publish them.

The Cirey years were productive and stimulating. In 1739, Mme du Châtelet entered into a spirited public debate with the Academy of Science over the nature of kinetic energy. Debates such as that served to enliven the atmosphere at Cirey. "The letters that flew back and forth became so technical," wrote Samuel Edwards, "that only a few people in all Europe had the educational background to understand them." By 1747, young scientists where beginning to arrive from all over Europe to study with Émilie.

When they were not working, Mme du Châtelet and Voltaire entertained house guests. They staged amateur performances of Voltaire's plays, in a small private theater at Cirey. Émilie loved to act and sing, although she is reputed to have lacked talent in both areas. The couple also traveled extensively.

By the mid-1840s, the relationship between Mme du Châtelet and Voltaire had begun to cool, although they still lived and worked together. But Mme du Châtelet began to speak of her relationship with Voltaire in terms of "friendship." A tinge of sadness can be detected in her Discours sur le bonheur or essays on happiness, begun in 1744.

I was happy for ten years in the love of a man who subjugated my soul, and these ten years I passed alone with him, without a single moment of distaste or lassitude. When age, illness, perhaps also the satiety of sensual enjoyment diminished his inclination, it was long before I noticed anything…. The cer tainty that it was impossible to expect the return of his desire for me and his passion, which is not in nature, as I well know, insensibly led my heart to an untroubled feeling of friendship, and this sentiment joined to a passion for study, gave me happiness enough.

It was not illness, or age, however, that had dampened Voltaire's ardor, but his niece, the young widow Mme Denis . Voltaire was falling in love.

There were interludes away from Cirey: in Brussels, Mme du Châtelet was involved in a protracted lawsuit; she also sojourned at the Lunéville court of Stanislas Leszczynski, ex-king of Poland. Here Émilie indulged her taste for dancing and gambling, while still maintaining a rigorous work schedule. Voltaire and du Châtelet traveled there in 1748 and again in 1749. It was at Lunéville that Émilie met, and fell in love with, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, a minor poet.

The situation began to unravel when Mme du Châtelet discovered that she was pregnant. At Cirey, Émilie, Voltaire, and Saint-Lambert plotted on how to inform her husband. But the Marquis accepted the inevitable and hurried off to rejoin his troops. Émilie wrote to her friend Mme Boufflers :

I am pregnant and you can imagine the distressing state I am in, how much I fear for my health, even for my life, how ridiculous I find it to give birth at the age of forty, not having had children for the past seventeen years, how upset I am for my son.

Because Émilie preferred having the baby in Lunéville, Stanislas agreed to make a small house available for her during her pregnancy. Voltaire reluctantly agreed to accompany her.

At the same time, Émilie worked 17-hour days in order to complete her translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica. Her commentary at the beginning of the book was partially based upon experiments that she had conducted at Cirey, and upon discussions with such eminent scientists of the day as Clairault, Bernoulli, and Maupertuis.

On September 4, 1749, Mme du Châtelet gave birth to a daughter. Her devotion to her work is reflected in the letter that Voltaire wrote to Comte d'Argental immediately after the event: "Mme du Châtelet informs you, Sir, that this night, being at her desk and scribbling a notice about Newton, she felt a little call. The little call was a daughter, who appeared in the instant. She was laid on a quarto tome of geometry."

On September 4, all seemed well. On September 5th, while the new mother was resting, she felt pangs of indigestion but not enough to "curtail the party atmosphere in her suite." The following day, she began to have difficulty breathing and physicians were called in; they diagnosed stomach upset because of rich food. On September 7, Mme du Châtelet went into a coma and died. Overcome with grief, Voltaire dashed from the room, tripped, and fell down a flight of stairs.

Émilie du Châtelet accomplished her metamorphosis from social butterfly to scholar in a society that cast a cool eye on such grand ambitions. And yet she was never deterred by the criticism of her peers. Her mind was an enviable example of depth and flexibility. From mathematics, algebra and geometry, to physics, metaphysics, moral philosophy, and theology, she exhibited a breadth of interest that distinguished her, not only as a true enlightenment scholar, but a scholar for all seasons. She is best known for Institutions de physique, and her translation and analysis of Newton's masterpiece, the Principia Mathematica, published after her death. Together with Voltaire and others, her work served to popularize Newton's ideas throughout continental Europe.

However, her other achievements deserve equal attention. Works such as her essay on the nature of fire, presented to the Academy of Sciences in 1738, and an incomplete manuscript on Newtonian optics, were both influential and timely. As well, she sought to explore the logic of grammar in an unfinished work, Grammaire raisonnée, or the reason of Grammar.

Mme du Châtelet was often incensed by the treatment women received. On one occasion, she is even said to have penetrated an exclusive café in the guise of a man. Of particular concern to her was the state of women's education, a subject dear to her heart. As she wrote in the preface to her unfinished translation of Bernard Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees: "If I were a king I would redress an abuse which cuts back, as it were, one half of human kind. I would have women participate in all human rights, especially those of the mind. There is no place where we are trained to think."

Denis, Louise (c. 1710–1790)

French author. Born Louise Mignot Arouet around 1710; died in 1790; daughter of Voltaire's oldest brother; married the middle-class M. Denis, 1738 (died 1744); married a Sieur du Vivier, 1779.

When Voltaire's oldest brother died in 1738, Voltaire's niece, the independent Louise Arouet—then 26 and unmarried—paid a visit to Cirey, in Lorraine. A handsome woman, similar to Émilie du Châtelet in temperament, her passion was music rather than science. There was no love lost between Mme Arouet and Mme du Châtelet. Intellectually equal, Louise demanded proof of Émilie's every assertion. Mme du Châtelet complained to few, however, and was relieved when Louise returned to Paris to marry M. Denis. When Denis died in 1744, Mme Denis paid another visit to Cirey. Voltaire sought out his comforting niece, and she lived with the philosopher until his death in 1778. In 1779, when she was 70, she married a Sieur du Vivier, who was about 60. Louise wrote several works and a play, "La coquette punie," but her literary work has been largely overshadowed by her relationship with Voltaire.

Émilie's essay Discours sur le bonheur was her only foray into the realm of moral philosophy. From it, it is possible to divine the subtleties and passions that drove her: her zest for life, her love of romance, and her devotion to learning. Although many of Mme du Châtelet's critics focused primarily on the social details of her life, it was Maupertuis, her friend and tutor, who summed up her true contribution. Thus, it seems fitting that he should have the last word.

Society is losing a noble and pleasant figure of a woman who is rightly regretted, the more so because, having great wit, she never put it to bad use…. How marvellous, be sides, to have been able to ally the pleasing qualities of her sex with that sublime science which we believe to be meant only for us.


Barber, William H., ed. "Mme. du Châtelet and Leibnitzianism: The Genesis of the Institutions de physique," in The Age of the Enlightenment: Studies Presented to Theodore Besterman. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1967.

Besterman, Theodore. Voltaire. London: Longmans, 1969.

Davis, Herman S. "Women Astronomers, 400 A.D.–1750," in Popular Astronomy. Simon Newcomb, ed. NY: Harper, 1878.

Edwards, Samuel. The Divine Mistress: A Biography of Émilie de Châtelet, the Beloved of Voltaire. NY: David McKay, 1970.

Mitford, Nancy. Voltaire in Love. NY: Harper, 1957.

Vaillot, René. Avec Madame Du Châtelet: 1734–1749. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, Taylor Institution, 1988.

Wade, Ira Owen. Studies on Voltaire, With Some Unpublished Papers of Mme. du Châtelet. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.

——. The Intellectual Development of Voltaire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

suggested reading:

Ehrman, Esther. Mme du Châtelet. Lemington Spa: Berg Publishers, 1986.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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