Lavoisier, Antoine (Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier; 1743–1794)

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LAVOISIER, ANTOINE (Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier; 17431794)

LAVOISIER, ANTOINE (Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier; 17431794), considered the father of modern French chemistry and the discoverer of oxygen. Born to a family of notaries and lawyers, Lavoisier was raised in the comfort of bourgeois Paris and attended the Collège Mazarin, where he studied literature, rhetoric, and the natural sciences. Intended for a legal career (he received his law degree in 1763 and several prizes for rhetoric), he early on moved first into mineralogy, traveling with Jean Étienne Guettard of the Academy of Sciences, and then into chemistry, following especially the public courses of the controversial Guillaume-François Rouelle at the Jardin du Roi. He was accepted at a very early on into the Academy of Sciences, of which he would be a lifelong and tireless member.

At a young age, Lavoisier felt that chemistry was a science filled with unclear names and confused theories, and he was committed to resolving it into a science as systematic as Newton's physics. From 1763 to about 1770, he slowly elaborated his famous principle that "nothing is gained and nothing is lost" in chemical reactions, that is, that conservation of mass defines the conceptual closure of chemical experiments. He also demonstrated that water is not an element by separating it into hydrogen and oxygen and then reversing the process. During the "crucial year," 17721773, he identified oxygen (and hydrogen) as elements and set the stage for the chemical revolution that disproved the phlogiston, or fixed-fire, theory of chemistry. In 1787 he and his disciples sealed their success with the Method of Chemical Nomenclature, a controversial reform of the field of chemistry based on Condillac's definition of a science as a perfect analytic language. Lavoisier's Elements of Chemistry of 1789 united the reformed nomenclature with the principles of closure-determined experimental observation and his definition of the chemical element. From the early 1780s he also worked with Laplace (17491827), studying the chemistry of respiration and theorizing that metabolism is a form of combustion. In this way he prepared the way for much of nineteenth-century biochemistry.

Lavoisier's life was not limited to chemistry, however. Although he had inherited a fortune sufficient for financial independence, he was a shy, serious young man, not given to public displays of brilliance or adept at social climbing. His marriage to the fourteen-year-old Marie Paulze, daughter of one of the members of the infamous General Farm, a quasi-governmental organization that collected the taxes from the French subjects for the crown, provided him with the social connections and the additional financial resources needed to join the oligarchy of Enlightenment meritocrats attempting to reform the French state under Louis XV (ruled 17151774) and Louis XVI (ruled 17741792). Lavoisier's training as a lawyer served him well at the tax farm and as a collaborator with Turgot (17271781) on proposals to reform the French economy. Dupont de Nemours (17391817) introduced him to the Physiocrats, and Lavoisier applied his scientific and economic theories to real-world experiments in agriculture (using experimental farms in his tax region to test the utility of crop rotation), prison reforms, analyses of the quality of the water of Paris, proposals for lighting Paris, and comparisons of hot-air versus hydrogen balloons for military observations and scientific investigations.

During the French Revolution and until the 1793 abolition of the Academy of Sciences, Lavoisier turned the sciences to the service of the republic. He was tireless in establishing a Bureau of Weights and Measures and the adoption of the metric system. He ran the in-town saltpeter factory that provided France (but only after his chemical improvements) with sufficient gunpowder to fight the counterrevolutionaries. With Condorcet (17431794) he proposed a structure for a secular public education, in part based on his experience of the reform of chemistry through its nomenclature: He believed that a French language freed from the confusion, superstition, and historical connotations of ancien régime ideology would create a new type of republican citizen and guarantee the economic security of the modern technological state.

He was, nonetheless, sent to the guillotine with the other fermiers généraux on 8 May 1794. His wife and chemical disciples had circulated letters and petitions to show how much the "father of French chemistry," as he was called, had been useful to the Revolution. The answer given them is famous: "the Revolution has no need of scientists." The Reign of Terror fell only three months later, and the posthumous rehabilitation of Lavoisier as the ideal citizen-scientist went hand-in-hand with the dismantling of Robespierre's (17581794) terrorist state.

See also Chemistry ; Condorcet, Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de ; Revolutions, Age of .


Primary Sources

Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent. Elements of Chemistry. Translated by Robert Kerr. Introduction by Douglas McKie. New York, 1965. This is the standard English translation of the Traitéélémentaire de chimie, 1789.

. Oeuvres de Lavoisier. Paris, 1862. The editing of his correspondence is still not finished. This same edition is also available online at the Sorbonne's, and many of the manuscripts as well as a good overview of the location of unpublished manuscripts held around the world can be found at the Panopticon Lavoisier, established by Marco Beretta and Andrea Scotti at

Secondary Sources

Guerlac, Henry. Lavoisier: The Crucial Year. Ithaca, N.Y., 1961. The classic reading of Lavoisier's invention of modern chemistry.

Holmes, Frederic Lawrence. Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life. Madison, Wisc., 1985. The best analysis of Lavoisier's work on animal respiration and metabolism.

Poirier, Pierre-Jean. Lavoisier, Chemist, Biologist, Economist. Translated by Rebecca Balinski. Philadelphia, 1996. Translation of Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier, 17431794, Paris, 1993. The best modern biography of Lavoisier in that it deals with the full scope of his scientific, technical, and public activities.

Wilda Christine Anderson

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Lavoisier, Antoine (Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier; 1743–1794)

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