Vauquelin, Nicolas Louis

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(b. St. André d’Hébertot, Normandy, France, 16 May 1763; d. St. André d’Hébertot, 14 November 1829)


The son of Nicolas Vauquelin, an estate manager, and Catherine Le Chartier, Vauquelin became assistant to a pharmacist in Rouen when he was about fourteen, but left after he was reprimanded for taking notes of the scientific lectures given by his master. He went to Paris and eventually worked for a pharmacist named Chéradame, a cousin of the chemist Fourcroy. About 1784 Vauquelin became Fourcroy’s laboratory and lecture assistant and at his invitation began to lecture at the lycée. But his voice was weak and he lacked confidence; and although he later occupied several chairs he never achieved fame as a lecturer. It soon became clear that he was a first–class experimental chemist, however, and his relationship with Fourcroy developed into an association of equals. Their first joint research was published in 1790, but political events interrupted their collaboration.

Vauquelin left Fourcroy’s laboratory by 1792 and became the manager of a pharmacy. In 1793 he spent several months as a hospital pharmacist at Meaux, near Paris. In September 1793 he was sent to the region around Tours by the government in order to organize the production of saltpeter, urgently needed for gunpowder. Vauquelin returned to Paris and resumed his association with Fourcroy late in 1794, when he was appointed assistant professor of chemistry at the new École Centrale des Travaux Publics (later, École Polytechnique). In 1795 he received the title of master in pharmacy and was elected to the Institut de France. He had apparently been elected to the old Académie des Sciences on 31 July 1793, a few days before its suppression, but his appointment had not been confirmed by the government.

Vauquelin left the École Polytechnique when its staff was reduced in 1797, but he continued as inspector of mines (a post he had held since 1794), and he retained his position as professor of assaying at the École des Mines, which he had entered after its reorganization in 1795. He also became official assayer of precious metals for Paris, and in 1799 he published a useful manuel de l’essayeur. He left the École des Mines in 1801 to succeed Jean d’Arcet as professor of chemistry at the Collège de France; in addition, he became director of the École de Pharmacie on its foundation in 1803.

In 1804 he moved again, from the Collège de France to the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, where he followed Antoine-Louis Brongniart as professor of applied chemistry. At the Muséum he was once more a colleague of Fourcroy, whose death in 1809 left a vacant chair in chemistry at the Faculté de Médecine. Much of Fourcroy’s research had been done in collaboration with Vauquelin, who was his obvious successor. However, the professor had to be medically qualified, so Vauquelin obtained his doctorate with a thesis on the chemical analysis of the human brain; he received his appointment in 1811. Along with several other professors he was dismissed in 1822 during a politically inspired reform of the Faculté, but he retained his posts at the Muséum and the École de Pharmacie. In 1828 he was elected to parliament as a deputy for Calvados, his native district.

In the course of his numerous analyses of minerals, Vauquelin discovered two new elements in 1798. By boiling the rare Siberian mineral crocoite (lead chromate) with potassium carbonate he obtained the yellow salt of an unknown acid. On reduction with carbon the acid yielded a metal that he named chromium on account of its colorful compounds (Greek, chroma–color). In beryl (beryllium aluminum silicate) he found an earth (oxide) that superficially resembled alumina (aluminum oxide) but was insoluble in alkali and did not form alum. At the suggestion of the editors of Annales de chimie, he originally called it glucina, from the sweetness of its sulfate, but later it was renamed beryllia. Metallic beryllium was not obtained until 1828, when Friedrich Wöhler and, independently, Antoine Bussy first isolated it.

The most important of Vauquelin’s many analyses of vegetable and animal substances were done with Fourcroy. In 1804 the two friends set up a small factory in Paris for the manufacture of high–quality chemicals. Vauquelin, the more active partner, was personally involved in its management for several years and retained a financial interest until 1822.

Vauquelin never married, and Fourcroy’s sisters, Madame Le Bailly and Madame Guédon, kept house for him from about 1790 until they died in 1819 and 1824 respectively.


I. Original Works. Vauquelin’s 305 contributions to periodicals that he wrote himself and the seventy–one that he wrote jointly with Fourcroy or others are listed in The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, VI (London, 1872), 114–128; a less complete list is given in Poggendorff, II, cols. 1182–1190. His only book is Manuel de l’essayeur (Paris, 1799). This was reprinted in 1812 and a new ed., revised by A. D. Vergnaud, appeared in 1836; there is a German trans. by F. Wolff, with notes by M. H. Klaproth (Königsberg, 1800) and a Spanish trans. (Paris, 1826).

While working on the production of saltpeter he wrote, with Trusson as coauthor, a 32–page pamphlet, Instruction sur la combustion des végétaux, la fabrication du salin, de la cendre gravelée, et sur la manière de saturer les eaux salpêtrées (Tours, 1794); trans. into Portuguese as Instrucçao sobre a combustaõ dos vegetaes . . . (Lisbon, 1798). Vauquelin wrote articles on apparatus in Fourcroy’s Encyclopédie méthodique chimie, II (Paris, 1792), and he was co–author, with Fourcroy, of VI (Paris, 1815). He also supervised the preparation of the two vols. of plates (1813, 1814). Reports made by Vauquelin to various institutions are listed in the author catalogue of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, vol. 204, cols. 206–207.

II. Secondary Literature. The earliest accounts of Vauquelin’s life are A. Chevallier and Robinet, Notice historique sur N. L. Vauquelin (Paris, 1830); and G. Cuvier, “Éloge historique de Louis Nicolas (sic) Vauquelin,” in Mémoires de l’Académie Royale des Sciences de l’Institut, 12 (1833), xxxix–lvi. Additional information is given by A. Chevallier, “Notice biographique sur M. Vauquelin,” in Journal de chimie médicale, ser. 3, 6 (1850), 542–549; and E. Pariset, Histoire des membres de l’Académie Royale de Médecine, I (Paris, 1850), 317–350.

Vauquelin’s baptismal certificate, now in the town hall of St. André d’Hébertot, shows that he was named Nicolas Louis, and not Louis Nicolas, as is often stated. This certificate has been published, with some other manuscripts, by M. Bouvet, “Documents encore ignorés sur Vauquelin,” in Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 16 (1963), 17–20. Vauquelin’s election to the Académie des Sciences in 1793 is discussed by M. Bouvet, “Vauquelin fut-il membre de l’ Académie des Sciences?” ibid., 12 (1955), 66–70, Information about the chemical factory is given in three papers by G. Kersaint, “L’Usine de Vauquelin et Fourcroy,” ibid., 14 (1959), 25–30; “Sur la fabrique de produits chimiques établie par Fourcroy et Vauquelin,” in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences, 247 (1958), 461-464; and “Sur une correspondence inédite de Nicolas Louis Vauquelin,” in Bulletin. Société chimique de France (1958), 1603.

For Vauquelin’s work on saltpeter manufacture in 1793–1794, see C. Richrd, Le comité de salut public et les fabrications de guerre sous la terreur (Paris, 1922), 429. For accounts of his research on chromium and beryllium, see M. E. Weeks and H. M. Leicester, The Discovery of the Elements (Easton, Pa., 1968), 271–281, 535–540. See also “Fourcroy,” in DSB, V, 92–93

W. A. Smeaton