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  • Women and the Paris Academy of Sciences
  • Vesna Crnjanski Petrovich (bio)

From its creation in 1666 until 1979, the Paris Academy of Sciences did not include women as full members. 1 Although formal statutes did not bar the admission of women, a firmly established tradition of excluding them from the prestigious institution existed for more than three centuries. 2 Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the institutionalization and progressive professionalization of science, participation in the scientific community increasingly depended upon access to the Academy. In order to pursue serious scientific work, it was necessary to be recognized by the Academy and to take part in sharing and discussing scientific matters within the community of acknowledged scholars.

However, during this period several women did make significant contributions to science. How did they manage to participate in the scientific community and what was their relationship to the Paris Academy of Sciences? Recent scholarship has examined the multifaceted question of women in science. 3 Benefiting from those studies, I propose to examine the specific strategies used by women to gain access to the Paris Academy of Sciences. I will compare two women who dealt directly and publicly with the Academy, the mathematicians Emilie du Châtelet (1706–49) and Sophie Germain (1776–1831). Comparison of these two mathematicians reveals the increasingly limited opportunities for women’s participation in science from the first half of the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century. In addition, I will consider the situation of several less-well-known women from the same time period who participated in academic endeavors indirectly and often privately by working with well-known academicians. These spouses and relatives, working as they did at the intersection of the private and public spheres, help us more fully understand women’s relationship to the Academy and the scientific community. These women include Mme de Lavoisier (1758–1836), wife of the chemist, and the women who worked with the astronomer Jérôme de Lalande (1732–1807): Mme Lepaute (1723–88) and Mme Le Français de Lalande (fl. 1790).

Emilie du Châtelet and Sophie Germain were recognized as the most successful women in mathematics of their times. The official journal of the Académie des Sciences, Le Journal des Savants, linked the two when Sophie Germain won an honorable mention for the essay she submitted for the 1813 Academy prize: “The opening of the secret ballot showed the name of a woman, Miss Germain, probably the person of her sex who has most profoundly penetrated in the field of mathematics, with the exception of Mme du Châtelet; but [for the latter] there was no Clairaut.” 4

The Academy’s official praise reflects the traditional characterization of women’s achievement as exceptional for their sex. Indeed, both the Marquise du Châtelet and Sophie Germain were exceptions among women of their times. Gabrielle-Emilie de Breteuil, the future Marquise du Châtelet, was born into the wealthy aristocracy and received an excellent education for a woman of her time. Her father, chief of protocol for Louis XIV, was determined and able to give his daughter a fine education at home. He tutored her himself, and she and her two brothers had access to their parents’ large library. De Breteuils also hosted a salon with such well-known habitués as Fontenelle and the young Voltaire. Emilie was allowed to participate in the salon gatherings and discussions. She developed a strong interest in astronomy and physics and reportedly discussed them at length with Fontenelle. She studied Latin, Italian, English, mathematics, and the sciences. 5 Benefiting from numerous contacts with the royal courts and the Parisian salons, she became well known for her controversial publication, Institutions de Physique, her public disputes, and her eccentricity. Today she is known in the history of science for her translation of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which her friend and mentor Alexis Claude Clairaut saw through publication after her untimely death in 1749. It is still the standard French edition of the text. 6 [End Page 383]

Sophie Germain, born almost three decades later into the wealthy bourgeoisie, was a withdrawn and solitary woman. She was a...

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