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Lavoisier, Antoine (1743–1794)


Antoine Lavoisier played the central role in what has come to be known as the chemical revolution. He is credited with establishing that oxygen is an element and water its compound with hydrogen, refining experimental methods in chemistry, reforming chemical nomenclature along systematic lines, defining element operationally, and denying phlogiston a place in chemical explanation.

Early Life and Work

Lavoisier was born into a wealthy family of lawyers in 1743, and in preparation for a legal career attended the Collège des Quatre Nations (or Collège Mazarin), earning a baccalaureate in law in 1763. He pursued scientific interests under the guidance of the geologist Jean-Étienne Guettard (17151786), a family friend, and attended Guillaume-François Rouelle's (17031770) popular and influential lectures on chemistry and mineralogy at the Jardin du Roi. From 1763 Lavoisier assisted Guettard on field trips for the first geological survey of France. His first chemical work was a study of gypsum and plaster of Paris, which was read to the Academy of Sciences in 1765, to which he was elected in 1768. That year Lavoisier also joined the Ferme Générale, a private company collecting indirect taxes in return for a fixed payment to the Crown. This investment would secure his fortune, but also prove his downfall. In 1771 he married Marie Anne Paulze, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a senior member of the Ferme. Marie became a significant collaborator: She learned English to translate important scientific papers, assisted in the laboratory, and trained in the visual arts, providing the engravings for Lavoisier's Traité Elémentaire de Chimie (1789).

Lavoisier was active outside of chemistry, especially in economic and farming reform. As an academician, he pursued many technological projects in the service of the state, helping to investigate water supply and storage, food purity, ballooning, bleaching, and ceramics and to develop the metric system. From 1776 he was in charge of the production and administration of gunpowder, working from a laboratory in the Royal Arsenal.

Lavoisier's contributions to chemistry began at a time when advancing experimental techniques made clearer the atmosphere's active role in chemical reactions, but phlogiston, the principle of inflammability, still provided the prevailing framework for understanding combustion and calcination (the formation of metal oxides). In 1772 Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau (17371816) reported to the Academy of Sciences that metals increase their weight on calcination. This was in tension with the phlogistonists' view that combustion and calcination involved loss of phlogiston to the air. Guyton de Morveau argued that the light phlogiston must "buoy up" the metal, but Lavoisier saw calcination instead as fixation of air in the calx. In the long and carefully constructed series of experiments that followed, Lavoisier studied the combustion and calcination of metals and nonmetals, measured the volumes of air absorbed or evolved, and weighed and investigated the solid products and the residual air. By 1778, drawing also on the experimental work of others, he was convinced that a particular component of air was involved in combustion, the "purest part of air" or "eminently respirable air," which combines with carbon to form fixed air (carbon dioxide). Lavoisier also noted during the 1770s that air was absorbed in the formation of phosphoric, sulfuric, and nitric acids and of fixed air, which was weakly acidic in solution. In papers read to the Academy of Sciences between 1776 and 1779 he concluded first that the acids were a chemical genus, containing air combined with different principles, and later that "eminently respirable air" contains the principle of acidity, which he called principe oxigine (later to become oxygène ). Water he identified as oxygen combined with "inflammable air" (which he renamed hydrogen). Oxygen the gas was not itself the principle of acidity, though: Lavoisier saw gases also as a chemical genus, their common constituent being caloric, the matter of heat. Thus in combustion, substances combine with the oxygen principle, releasing caloric from oxygen gas, which explained why heat was evolved in the process. Experiments on animal respiration convinced him that respiration is a slow version of combustion, and in 1785 he extended his theory of acidity, accounting for the solution of metals in acids as wet calcination.

Chemical Revolution

These three theoriesof combustion, acidity, and the gaseous stategave Lavoisier a framework comprehensive enough to deny phlogiston its explanatory role. In 1785 he read "Réflexions sur le Phlogistique," a direct attack on the theory, to the Academy of Sciences. In 1787 he published, with Guyton de Morveau and others, a new nomenclature for chemistry, replacing a jumble of uninformative traditional names with a system for naming compounds based on their composition, reflecting the latest discoveries. This is largely still in use in modern chemistry.

Lavoisier published his most influential work, Traité Elémentaire de Chimie, in 1789. This combined a clear presentation of his own theories of gases, of combustion and acidity in part I, with (in parts II and III) a summary of less controversial material on acids, bases, and salts and on experimental methods. In the preface, he introduced his empirical definition of elementhood : rejecting the traditional speculations about the "simple substances," he proposed to treat as simple any substance that had not yet been decomposed in the laboratory.

After 1789 political revolution in France intervened increasingly in Lavoisier's activities, curtailing his scientific researches, though at first he was sympathetic to its aims. Scientific and administrative institutions of the ancien régime, in which he had played a prominent (though liberal and reforming) role, were successively abolished: the Ferme Générale in 1791 and the Academy of Sciences in 1793. Members of the Ferme were arrested in November 1793, and on May 8, 1794, were convicted of adulterating tobacco and withholding taxes from the government. Lavoisier was executed that same day, just after his father-in-law.

Lavoisier's achievement raises important historiographical and philosophical questions about progress in science. Lavoisier himself, writing in 1773, foresaw a revolution in chemistry, and his name appears throughout Thomas S. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970). In this technical sense the defeat of the phlogiston theory has been called a scientific revolution because: (1) it involved wholesale revision to theoretical interpretations of empirical evidence and accepted views of the relative simplicity of whole classes of substances (e.g., metals and their calxes); and (2) it was accompanied by a major reform of chemical nomenclature that embedded the oxygen theory in the very language of chemistry. The importance of his empirical definition of elementhood is less clear. It was not original to him, and it applied only selectively to his own list of elements.

See also Chemistry, Philosophy of.


works by lavoisier

Traité Elémentaire de Chimie. 2 vols. Paris: Cuchet, 1789. Translated by Robert Kerr as The Elements of Chemistry (Edinburgh, Scotland: William Creech, 1790), reprinted as David Knight (ed.) The Development of Chemistry, Vol. 2 (New York: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1998).

works about lavoisier

Donovan, Arthur. Antoine Lavoisier: Science, Administration, and Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

Hendry, Robin Findlay. "Lavoisier and Mendeleev on the Elements." In Foundations of Chemistry 7 (1) (2005): 3148.

Holmes, Frederic Lawrence. Antoine Lavoisier: The Next Crucial Year, or The Sources of His Quantitative Method in Chemistry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Holmes, Frederic Lawrence. Eighteenth-Century Chemistry as an Investigative Enterprise. Berkeley: Office for History of Science and Technology, University of California at Berkeley, 1989.

Kitcher, Philip. The Advancement of Science: Science without Legend, Objectivity without Illusions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Thagard, Paul. "The Conceptual Structure of the Chemical Revolution." In Philosophy of Science 57 (2) (1990): 183209.

Robin Findlay Hendry (2005)

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