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Her-Story, Then: Emilie Du Chatelet

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Kate Muldrew: In a time and place when a woman's future depends on her courting abilities what do you do with an ugly daughter? Educate her. She just might grow up to be a ground-breaking mathematician. Emilie Du Chatelet did. And by the way her love life wasn't too shabby either. I am Kate Mulgrew and this is her story. Born to a wealthy Parisian family in 1706 Emilie's father thought she would never receive a marriage proposal. He supplied Emilie with tutors in Latin, in Italian and in English, even classical philosophy. But Emilie was most passionate about mathematics. One by one she exhausted her tutors. Her questions outpaced them; she hounded them with rigorous debate and round the clock hours. She dismissed one due to irreconcilable differences over the nature of "the infinite small".

Despite her father's concern, the passionate Emilie had a steady line of suitors. Married at 19, the mother of three by 30 she continued to pursue her intellectual and sensual interests. Among her lovers was Voltaire. They spent years poring over Leibniz and Newton together. Emile translated Newton's "Principia" and added a ground breaking "Algebraic commentary". She latter wrote a treatise on physics.

But even when she quit for the day, Emile gave herself to her social life. Voltaire claimed that she lived life "at full tilt like a spirited healthy child". When she became pregnant by yet another lover, Voltaire colluded to convince her family that the baby belonged to her legal husband. Emile gave birth to the little girl at her desk where she was working on some of Newton theories. She placed the baby temporarily on top of the geometry book and finished her writing. But Emile and the baby died a few days later. Voltaire collapsed in tears outside her doorstep. He later published both her books and wrote a historical forward describing Emile's contributions to the field of mathematics.

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Her story has been made possible by the National Science Foundation.

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