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Antoine Laurent Lavoisier

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier

The French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) was the founder of the modern science of chemistry and the author of the oxygen theory of combustion.

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was born in Paris on Aug. 26, 1743, the son of an attorney at the Parlement of Paris. Lavoisier began his schooling at the Collège Mazarin in Paris at the age of 11. In his last two years (1760-1761) at the college his scientific interests were aroused. In the philosophy class he came under the tutelage of Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, a distinguished mathematician and observational astronomer who imbued the young Lavoisier with an interest in meteorological observation, an enthusiasm which never left him.

Lavoisier entered the school of law, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1763 and a licentiate in 1764. However, he continued his scientific education in his spare time. In 1764 he read his first paper to the French Academy of Sciences, on the chemical and physical properties of gypsum (hydrated calcium sulfate), and in 1766 he was awarded a gold medal by the King for an essay on the problems of urban street lighting.

In 1768 Lavoisier received a provisional appointment to the Academy of Sciences. About the same time he bought a share in the Tax Farm, a financial company which advanced the estimated tax revenue to the royal government in return for the right to collect the taxes. It was to prove a fateful step. Lavoisier consolidated his social and economic position when, in 1771, he married Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, the 14-year-old daughter of a senior member of the Tax Farm. She was to play an important part in Lavoisier's scientific career, translating English chemical works into French for him, assisting in the laboratory, and drawing diagrams for his scientific works.

For 3 years following his entry into the Tax Farm, Lavoisier's scientific activity diminished somewhat, for much of his time was taken up with official Tax Farm business. He did, however, present one important memoir to the Academy of Sciences during this period, on the supposed conversion of water into earth by evaporation. By a very precise quantitative experiment Lavoisier showed that the "earthy" sediment produced after long-continued reflux heating of water in a glass vessel was not due to a conversion of the water into earth but rather to the gradual disintegration of the inside of the glass vessel produced by the boiling water.

Oxygen Theory of Combustion

During the summer and fall of 1772 Lavoisier turned his attention to the phenomenon of combustion, the topic on which he was to make his most significant contribution to science. He reported the results of his first experiments on combustion in a note to the academy on October 20 in which he reported that when phosphorus burned it combined with a large quantity of air to produce acid spirit of phosphorus (phosphoric acid) and that the phosphorus increased in weight on burning. In a second sealed note deposited with the academy a few weeks later (November 1) Lavoisier extended his observations and conclusions to the burning of sulfur and went on to add that "what is observed in the combustion of sulfur and phosphorus may well take place in the case of all substances that gain in weight by combustion and calcination: and I am persuaded that the increase in weight of metallic calces is due to the same cause."

During 1773 Lavoisier determined to review thoroughly the literature on air, particularly "fixed air," and to repeat many of the experiments of other workers in the field. He published an account of this review in 1774 in a book entitled Opuscules physiques et chimiques (Physical and Chemical Essays). In the course of this review he made his first full study of the work of Joseph Black, the Scottish chemist who had carried out a series of classic quantitative experiments on the mild and caustic alkalies. Black had shown that the difference between a mild alkali, for example, chalk (CaCO3), and the caustic form, for example, quicklime (CaO), lay in the fact that the former contained "fixed air," not common air fixed in the chalk, but a distinct chemical species, carbon dioxide (CO2), which was a constituent of the atmosphere. Lavoisier recognized that Black's fixed air was identical with the air evolved when metal calces were reduced with the charcoal and even suggested that the air which combined with metals on calcination and increased the weight might be Black's fixed air, that is, CO2.

In the spring of 1774 Lavoisier carried out experiments on the calcination of tin and lead in sealed vessels which conclusively confirmed that the increase in weight of metals on calcination was due to combination with air. But was it combination with common atmospheric air or with only a part of atmospheric air? In October the English chemist Joseph Priestley visited Paris, where he met Lavoisier and told him of the air which he had produced by heating the red calx of mercury with a burning glass and which had supported combustion with extreme vigor. Priestley at this time was unsure of the nature of this gas, but he felt that it was an especially pure form of common air. Lavoisier carried out his own researches on this peculiar substance. The result was his famous memoir "On the Nature of the Principle Which Combines with Metals during Their Calcination and Increases Their Weight," read to the academy on April 26, 1775 (commonly referred to as the Easter Memoir). In the original memoir Lavoisier showed that the mercury calx was a true metallic calx in that it could be reduced with charcoal, giving off Black's fixed air in the process. When reduced without charcoal, it gave off an air which supported respiration and combustion in an enhanced way. He concluded that this was just a pure form of common air, and that it was the air itself "undivided, without alteration, without decomposition" which combined with metals on calcination.

After returning from Paris, Priestley took up once again his investigation of the air from mercury calx. His results now showed that this air was not just an especially pure form of common air but was "five or six times better than common air, for the purpose of respiration, inflammation, and … every other use of common air." He called the air dephlogisticated air, as he thought it was common air deprived of its phlogiston. Since it was therefore in a state to absorb a much greater quantity of phlogiston given off by burning bodies and respiring animals, the greatly enhanced combustion of substances and the greater ease of breathing in this air were explained.

The "official" version of Lavoisier's Easter Memoir did not appear until 1778. In the intervening period Lavoisier had ample time to repeat some of Priestley's latest experiments and perform some new ones of his own. In addition to studying Priestley's dephlogisticated air, he studied more thoroughly the residual air after metals had been calcined. He showed that this residual air supported neither combustion nor respiration and that approximately five volumes of this air added to one volume of the dephlogisticated air gave common atmospheric air. Common air was then a mixture of two distinct chemical species with quite different properties. Thus when the revised version of the Easter Memoir was published in 1778, Lavoisier no longer stated that the principle which combined with metals on calcination was just common air but "nothing else than the healthiest and purest part of the air" or the "eminently respirable part of the air." In the following year Lavoisier coined the name oxygen for this constituent of the air, from the Greek words meaning "acid former." He was struck by the fact that the combustion products of such nonmetals as sulfur, phosphorus, charcoal, and nitrogen were acidic. He held that all acids contained oxygen and that oxygen was therefore the acidifying principle.

Lavoisier's new theory of combustion was virtually complete. He was now ready to mount a wholesale attack on the current phlogiston theory.

Lavoisier the Public Servant

Lavoisier's researches on combustion were carried out in the midst of a very busy schedule of public and private duties, especially in connection with the Tax Farm. There were also innumerable reports for and committees of the Academy of Sciences to investigate specific problems on order of the royal government. Lavoisier, whose organizing skills were outstanding, frequently landed the task of writing up such official reports. In 1775 he was made one of four commissioners of gunpowder appointed to replace a private company, similar to the Tax Farm, which had proved unsatisfactory in supplying France with its munitions requirements. As a result of his efforts, both the quantity and quality of French gunpowder greatly improved, and it became a source of revenue for the government. His appointment to the Gunpowder Commission brought one great benefit to Lavoisier's scientific career as well. As a commissioner, he enjoyed both a house and a laboratory in the Royal Arsenal. Here he lived and worked between 1775 and 1792.

Consolidation of the New Theory

Lavoisier's chemical research between 1772 and 1778 was largely concerned with developing his own new theory of combustion. In 1783 he read to the academy his famous paper entitled "Reflections of Phlogiston," a full-scale attack on the current phlogiston theory of combustion. That year Lavoisier also began a series of experiments on the composition of water which were to prove an important capstone to his combustion theory and win many converts to it. Many investigators had been experimenting with the combination of inflammable air (hydrogen) with dephlogisticated air (oxygen) by electrically sparking mixtures of the gases. All of the researchers noted the production of water, but all interpreted the reaction in varying ways within the framework of the phlogiston theory. In cooperation with mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace, Lavoisier synthesized water by burning jets of hydrogen and oxygen in a bell jar over mercury. The quantitative results were good enough to support the contention that water was not an element, as had been thought for over 2,000 years, but a compound of two gases, hydrogen and oxygen.

Lavoisier, together with L. B. Guyton de Morveau, Claude Louis Berthollet, and Antoine François de Fourcroy, submitted a new program for the reforms of chemical nomenclature to the academy in 1787, for there was virtually no rational system of chemical nomenclature at this time. The new system was tied inextricably to Lavoisier's new oxygen theory of chemistry. The Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire, and water were discarded, and instead some 55 substances which could not be decomposed into simpler substances by any known chemical means were provisionally listed as elements. The elements included light; caloric (matter of heat); the principles of oxygen, hydrogen, and azote (nitrogen); carbon; sulfur; phosphorus; the yet unknown "radicals" of muriatic acid (hydrochloric acid), boracic acid, and "fluoric" acid; 17 metals; 5 earths (mainly oxides of yet unknown metals such as magnesia, barite, and strontia); three alkalies (potash, soda, and ammonia); and the "radicals" of 19 organic acids. The acids, regarded in the new system as compounds of various elements with oxygen, were given names which indicated the element involved together with the degree of oxygenation of that element, for example sulfuric and sulfurous acids, phosphoric and phosphorus acids, nitric and nitrous acids, the "ic" termination indicating acids with a higher proportion of oxygen than those with the "ous" ending. Similarly, salts of the "ic" acids were given the terminal letters "ate," as in copper sulfate, whereas the salts of the"ous" acids terminated with the suffix "ite," as in copper sulfite. The total effect of the new nomenclature can be gauged by comparing the new name "copper sulfate" with the old term "vitriol of Venus."

Lavoisier employed the new nomenclature in his Elements of Chemistry, published in 1789. This work represents the synthesis of Lavoisier's contribution to chemistry and can be considered the first modern text-book on the subject. The core of the Elements of Chemistry was the oxygen theory, and the work became a most effective vehicle for the transmission of the new doctrines. It remains a classic in the history of science.

His Physiological Studies

The relationship between combustion and respiration had long been recognized from the essential role which air played in both processes. Lavoisier was almost obliged, therefore, to extend his new theory of combustion to include the area of respiration physiology. His first memoirs on this topic were read to the Academy of Sciences in 1777, but his most significant contribution to this field was made in the winter of 1782/1783 in association with Laplace. The result of this work was published in a famous memoir, "On Heat." Lavoisier and Laplace designed an ice calorimeter apparatus for measuring the amount of heat given off during combustion or respiration. By measuring the quantity of carbon dioxide and heat produced by confining a live guinea pig in this apparatus, and by comparing the amount of heat produced when sufficient carbon was burned in the ice calorimeter to produce the same amount of carbon dioxide as that which the guinea pig exhaled, they concluded that respiration was in fact a slow combustion process. This continuous slow combustion, which they supposed took place in the lungs, enabled the living animal to maintain its body temperature above that of its surroundings, thus accounting for the puzzling phenomenon of animal heat.

Lavoisier continued these respiration experiments in 1789-1790 in cooperation with Armand Seguin. They designed an ambitious set of experiments to study the whole process of body metabolism and respiration using Seguin as a human guinea pig in the experiments. Their work was only partially completed and published because of the disruption of the Revolution; but Lavoisier's pioneering work in this field served to inspire similar research on physiological processes for generations to come.

Last Years

As the Revolution gained momentum from 1789 on, Lavoisier's world inexorably collapsed around him. Attacks mounted on the Tax Farm, and it was eventually suppressed in 1791. In 1792 Lavoisier was forced to resign from his post on the Gunpowder Commission and to move from his house and laboratory at the Royal Arsenal. On Aug. 8, 1793, all the learned societies, including the Academy of Sciences, were suppressed.

It is difficult to assess Lavoisier's own attitude to the political turmoil. Like so many intellectual liberals, he felt that the Old Regime could be reformed from the inside if only reason and moderation prevailed. Characteristically, one of his last major works was a proposal to the National Convention for the reform of French education. He tried to remain aloof from the political cockpit, no doubt fearful and uncomprehending of the violence he saw therein. However, on Nov. 24, 1793, the arrest of all the former tax gatherers was ordered. They were formally brought to trial on May 8, 1794, and convicted with summary justice of having plundered the people and the treasury of France, of having adulterated the nation's tobacco with water, and of having supplied the enemies of France with huge sums of money from the national treasury. Lavoisier, along with 27 of his former colleagues, was guillotined on the same day.

Further Reading

The best source for a study of Lavoisier is the translation of his Traité elémentaire de chimie, printed as Elements of Chemistry with an introduction by Douglas McKie, in 1965. The most comprehensive biography of Lavoisier in English is Douglas McKie, Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer (1952). Henry Guerlac, Lavoisier: The Crucial Years (1961), deals with the factors which led Lavoisier to study the combustion problem. See also Sidney J. French, Torch and Crucible: The Life and Death of Antoine Lavoisier (1941). James Bryant Conant, ed., The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory (1955), is a clear and valuable study of this aspect of the chemical revolution. □

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Lavoisier, Antoine

Lavoisier, Antoine


Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, born in Paris, France, is considered the father of modern chemistry. During the course of his career, Lavoisier managed to transform just about every aspect of chemistry. But Lavoisier was not just a scientist. He was involved in French taxation politics during a turbulent time in the country's historythe French Revolution (the first major social revolution proclaiming the liberty of the individual [ca. 17891799]). Because of his involvement with the ruling class, he was executed during the revolutionary days known as the Terror, at the height of his scientific career.

Just before and during the French Revolution, another revolution was taking place. In any study of the history of chemistry, the period between 1770 and 1790 is commonly regarded as the "Chemical Revolution." This revolution, which marked the beginnings of modern chemistry, occurred in large part as a result of Lavoisier's scientific excellence and brilliant experimental capabilities. He played a role in many aspects of the Chemical Revolution, including the abandonment of the phlogiston theory of combustion , the evolution of the concept of an element, and the development of a new chemical nomenclature.

Perhaps Lavoisier's most important accomplishment was his role in the dismantling of the phlogiston theory of combustion. Phlogiston was a substance believed to be emitted during combustion and the calcination of metals . Earlier chemists, such as the Germans Johann Becher (16351682) and George Stahl (16601734), supposed that a metal was composed of calx and phlogiston, and that burning resulted from the loss of phlogiston. The fact that metals actually gained weight during combustion was usually explained away by the theory that phlogiston had negative weight. Lavoisier, like some others, saw that it was illogical for anything to have negative weight.

To prove his supposition that phlogiston did not exist, Lavoisier introduced quantitative measurement to the laboratory. Using precise weighing, he showed that in all cases of combustion where an increase in weight was observed, air was absorbed, and that when a calx was burned with charcoal, air was liberated. In addition to showing by precise measurement that phlogiston did not exist, Lavoisier's findings also implied that the total weight of the substances taking part in a chemical reaction remains the same before and after the reactionan early statement of the law of conservation of mass. By ridding the chemical world of the phlogiston theory of combustion using quantitative analysis, Lavoisier was able to push chemistry toward its modern state. No longer would counterintuitive notions such as a substance having negative weight occupy the minds of chemists.

Likewise, Lavoisier's work was also able to refute the theory that the world was composed of either one, two, three, or four elements. Lavoisier defined an element as the "last point which analysis is capable of reaching," or in modern terms, a substance that cannot be broken down any further into its components. This break from the theories of the ancient world allowed chemists to pursue the study of chemistry with a different outlook of the world. By defining elements as the last points of analysis, Lavoisier opened up new investigative possibilities. In his classic textbook Elements of Chemistry (generally acknowledged to be the first modern chemistry textbook), he compiled a list of all the substances he could not break down into simpler substances, that is, he created the first table of elements (although not the Periodic Table of later years). By acknowledging that there could be more elements than his preliminary list provided, Lavoisier left the search for more elements to his successors.

Lavoisier's dismantling of the phlogiston theory and his systematic definition of an element caused many chemists to view basic concepts differently and to embrace the principles of Lavoisier's new chemistry. One of the methods Lavoisier used to spread his ideas was to construct a new and logical system for naming chemicals. Working with Claude Berthollet and Antoine Fourcroy, Lavoisier developed a new nomenclature based on three general principles: (1) Substances should have one fixed name, (2) names ought to reflect composition when known, and (3) names should generally be chosen from Greek or Latin roots. This new nomenclature was published in 1787, and it swayed even more chemists to adopt the new chemistry.

Nevertheless, Lavoisier did not always hit on the right theories for the right reasons. For example, he believed that acidity was caused by the presence of oxygen in a compound. Lavoisier concluded in 1776 that oxygen was the part of a compound that was responsible for the property of acidity because he had isolated it from so many acids. In fact, oxygen means "acid former." According to Lavoisier, the other portion of the compound combined with the oxygen was called an "acidifiable base" and it was responsible for the specific properties of the compound. Although these concepts turned out to be wrong, the thinking behind them is important since it represented the first systematic attempt to chemically characterize acids and bases.

Lavoisier was not only interested in the theoretical aspects of chemistry. He also devoted much of his time to studying more practical topics, such as the best ways of lighting streets in a large town. In addition, Lavoisier took part in the development of what was to become the metric system and he was involved in improving the manufacture of gunpowder.

Although Lavoisier was independently wealthy, thanks to a considerable fortune inherited from his mother, he sought to increase his wealth in order to pursue his scientific career on a larger scale. For this reason, he entered the Ferme, a private company whose members purchased the privilege of collecting national taxes. During the French Revolution, the tax collectors of the Ferme were the subject of popular hatred. Although he carried out his duties honestly, Lavoisier was associated with the perceived corruption of the tax collection system. At the height of the Revolution, Lavoisier was arrested and executed by beheading in 1794.

Lavoisier's untimely death ended an era in the history of chemistry. With his contributions to chemistry ranging from developing the modern concept of combustion to establishing the language of chemistry, Lavoisier provided the foundation for the study of chemistry as a modern science.

see also Berthollet, Claude-Louis.

Lydia S. Scratch


Donovan, Arthur (1993). Antoine Lavoisier: Science, Administration and Revolution. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.

Jaffe, Bernard (1976). Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry from Ancient Alchemy to Nuclear Fission. New York: Dover.

Yount, Lisa (1997). Antoine Lavoisier: Founder of Modern Chemistry. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers.

Internet Resources

Beretta, Marco, ed. "Panopticon Lavoisier." Available from <>.

Poirier, Jean-Pierre. "Lavoisier's Friends." Available from <>.

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Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (äNtwän´ lōräN´ lävwäzyā´), 1743–94, French chemist and physicist, a founder of modern chemistry. He studied under eminent men of his day, won early recognition, and was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1768. Much of his work was the result of extending and coordinating the research of others; his concepts were largely evolved through his superior ability to organize and interpret and were substantiated by his own experiments. He was one of the first to introduce effective quantitative methods in the study of chemical reactions. He explained combustion and thereby discredited the phlogiston theory. He also described clearly the role of oxygen in the respiration of both animals and plants. His classification of substances is the basis of the modern distinction between chemical elements and compounds and of the system of chemical nomenclature. He also conducted experiments to establish the composition of water and of many organic compounds. Lavoisier worked as well to improve economic and social conditions in France, holding various government posts. He was appointed director of the gunpowder commission (1775), member of the committee on agriculture (1785), director of the Academy of Sciences (1785), member of the commission on weights and measures (1790), and commissioner of the treasury (1791). As one of the farmers general, however, charged with the collection of taxes, he was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. His works include Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789) and the posthumously published Mémoires de chimie (1805).

See H. Guerlac, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier: Chemist and Revolutionary (1975); F. L. Holmes, Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life (1985); M. S. Bell, Lavoisier in the Year One (2005).

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Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent

Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent (1743–94) French chemist who founded modern chemistry. He demolished the phlogiston theory (which said that phlogiston was lost during combustion) by demonstrating the function of oxygen in combustion. He named oxygen and hydrogen, and showed how they combined to form water. In collaboration with Claude Berthollet, he published Methods of Chemical Nomenclature (1787), which laid down the modern method of naming substances.

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