Antoine Lavoisier (1743 – 1794) was a French nobleman and chemist who, with his revolutionary changes in chemistry, is termed the “Father of Modern Chemistry.” He forever changed the practice and concepts of chemistry with a series of laboratory analyses that brought an end to the chaotic centuries of Greek philosophy and medieval alchemy. Some of his most notable works include the identification of Oxygen (1778) and Hydrogen (1783), establishing the law of conservation of mass, organizing chemical nomenclature, introducing Stoichiometry, opposing the phlogiston theory, and his determination that combustion and respiration are caused by chemical reactions with what he named “oxygen.”
I consider nature a vast chemical laboratory in which all kinds of composition and decompositions are formed.” – Antoine Lavoisier
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier was born on 26 August 1743 in Paris France. He grew up in an affluent family in Paris. At the age of five, he lost his mother who left a huge fortune for Lavoisier. He was raised by his aunt Mlle Constance Punctis through whom Lavoisier secured the advantage of a good education. In 1754, at the age of eleven, Lavoisier began his schooling when he attended the Collège des Quatre-Nations, the University of Paris (also known as the Collège Mazarin) in Paris, where he studied till 1761. School History
During the last two years at the Collège Mazarin, Lavoisier developed an interest in science, and he studied mathematics, astronomy, botany, and chemistry. While studying at the Collège Mazarin under the tutelage of Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, a French astronomer and geodesist who named 14 out of the 88 constellations, Lavoisier became enthusiastic about meteorological observation, an interest that never left him, and which helped Lavoisier construct the metric system, one of the most significant contributions of Lavoisier to science. Later, he studied law and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1763. In 1764, he received a licentiate, and at the age of 21, he was fully trained for the legal profession and admitted to the French bar. School History In the same year, he published his first chemical publication.
Parents & Siblings
Antoine Lavoisier belonged to an affluent family in Paris. His father, Jean-Antoine Lavoisier, was a lawyer of distinction, and his mother, Emilie Punctis, belonged to a rich and influential family. Antoine Lavoisier was the only son of his parents. Lavoisier in the year one : the birth of a new science in an age of revolution by Bell, Madison Smartt His mother died when Lavoisier was only five years old.
Wife – His Best Laboratory Companion
On 16 December 1771, Lavoisier in the year one : the birth of a new science in an age of revolution by Bell, Madison Smartt the 28-year-old Antoine Lavoisier got married to the 14-year-old Marie-Anne Paulze in Paris.
Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze was the daughter of Hacques Paulze, a senior member of the Ferme générale; in ancien régime France, Ferme générale was essentially an outsourced customs, excise, and indirect tax operation. Reportedly, Marie was supposed to get married to Comte d’Amerval, an impoverished fifty-year-old nobleman, who sued her father in a hostile takeover attempt; neither Marie nor her father wanted that marriage. Marie herself described him as,
a fool, an unfeeling rustic and an ogre.”
Marie’s father found Antoine Lavoisier, who had joined him at Ferme générale, a much more appealing match for Marie Anne than Amerval in almost every aspect – age, temperament, and financial position. After, marriage, Madame Marie-Anne Lavoisier joined Lavoisier as a very efficient laboratory assistant; she would keep meticulous notes on experiments and help draft numerous of Lavoisier’s texts.
With her knowledge of Latin and English, Marie Anne translated many articles and entire books for Lavoisier. Many insights into Lavoisier’s equipment and laboratory setup came from Marie’s hand, especially her nicely composed sketches of Lavoisier’s respiration experiments. The couple remained childless. Lavoisier in the year one : the birth of a new science in an age of revolution by Bell, Madison Smartt
Chemistry During Lavoisier’s Time
In 1761, when the 17-year-old Lavoisier left Mazarin College in Paris, Chemistry was hardly considered true science. Unlike physics, which had come of age through the significant works of Isaac Newton a century earlier, the chemistry was still mired in the legacy of the Greek philosophers. By this time, the medieval alchemist had modified the four elements of Aristotle — earth, air, fire, and water with their own arcane language and symbolism.
Initial Scientific Works
Fascinated by Pierre Macquer’s dictionary of chemistry, and influenced by Étienne Condillac, a prominent French scholar of the 18th century, Antoine Lavoisier published his first scientific paper and also read a paper to the elite French Academy of Sciences. In 1769, the 26-year-old Lavoisier was elected to the French Academy of Sciences.
A Tax-collecting Scientist
The modest salary that Lavoisier was paid by the Royal Academy of Sciences was not enough to support his lifestyle, so the 26-year-old Lavoisier, with funds inherited upon the death of his mother, bought a share in the Ferme générale, a private consortium that collected taxes for the king in France. Lavoisier’s stint as a tax administrator made him a very wealthy man – a multi-millionaire by today’s standards. It was during this time that he married Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze. For the initial three years of his stint as a tax collector, his scientific activity suffered somewhat. Lavoisier was considered an efficient tax administrator. As a tax collector, he also tried a lot to help the peasants by introducing reforms to the French monetary and taxation system.
Contributions to Chemistry
Antoine Lavoisier was the pioneer of modern chemistry, and he immensely enriched chemistry with his new practices and concepts in the field.
By 1770, Lavoisier had started focusing on the phenomenon of combustion, a concept that was going to become his most valuable contribution to science. Two years later, i.e., in 1772, he submitted a sealed note to the French Academy of Sciences about his findings in which he mentioned that sulfur and phosphorous increased in weight upon its reduction to lead. In his note, Lavoisier wrote,
About eight days ago I discovered that sulfur in burning, far from losing weight, on the contrary, gains it; it is the same with phosphorus; this increase of weight arises from a prodigious quantity of air that is fixed during combustion and combines with the vapors. This discovery, which I have established by experiments, that I regard as decisive, has led me to think 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 calyxes is due to the same cause… This discovery seems to me one of the most interesting that has been made since Stahl and since it is difficult not to disclose something inadvertently in conversation with friends that could lead to the truth I have thought it necessary to make the present deposit to the Secretary of the Academy to await the time I make my experiments public.”
“Fixed Air” – A New Interest in Gases
By the 1770s, British scientists had extensively studied gases, or what they called “airs.” Although French scientists, by that time, had not shown any interest in the study of gases, Lavoisier became interested in studying “airs” after he received a tip from a French industrial spy that Joseph Black, a Scottish physicist, and chemist, had invented a method for making soda water by injecting “fixed air” into the water; this “fixed air’ was what we now call carbon dioxide. When the French government found that the British Navy was planning to test the drink as a treatment for scurvy, French Commerce Minister Jean Charles Trudaine de Montigny urged Lavoisier to look into the matter. Although soda water would be of no use against the treatment of scurvy, it would arouse Lavoisier’s interest in gases that would eventually and set him on the path toward his greatest discoveries. After extensively studying Joseph Black’s work, and a series of quantitative experiments, Lavoisier found that Black’s fixed air was identical with the air evolved when he experimented on calcination of metals.
Joseph Priestley’s Common Air – Discovery of Oxygen
By the spring of 1774, Lavoisier had conclusively confirmed that the increase in weight of metals in combustion, an experiment that he carried out on the calcination of tin and lead in sealed vessels, was due to combination with air; however, he was not sure whether it combined with common atmospheric air or with only a part of atmospheric air. In October 1774, Lavoisier met Joseph Priestley during the latter’s visit in Paris; Priestley talked about an air that was produced when Priestley heated the red calx of mercury with a burning glass, and according to Priestley, this air supported combustion with extreme vigor; however, Priestley was not sure about the exact nature of this gas, but he somewhat believed that it might be the purest form of common air.
Later, Lavoisier performed his own experiments to obtain the nature of this peculiar gas, and these experiments resulted in his memoir “On the Nature of the Principle Which Combines with Metals during Their Calcination and Increases Their Weight” that he read to the Academy on 26 April 1775; this is commonly referred to as the Easter Memoir. Later, in the original memoir, Lavoisier discussed that when mercury clax was reduced with charcoal, it produced Joseph Black’s fixed air, i.e., carbon dioxide, CO2; however, when reduced without charcoal, it produced an air that supported vigorous respiration and combustion, and this led Lavoisier to conclude that Priestley’s mysterious air was just a pure form of common air. Mémoire sur la combustion en général He explained this air as –
more pure than even the common air in which we live.”
Soon, Lavoisier gave this pure form of common air a name – Oxygen.
Before Lavoisier, the scientific experiments mostly dealt in qualitative terms, and it was Lavoisier who gave it a quantitative direction. Lavoisier’s experiments are, in fact, considered the first truly quantitative chemical experiments. Lavoisier would weigh the reactants and products of a chemical reaction in a sealed glass vessel to make sure that no gases could escape, and then he would draft a meticulous balance sheet of reactants and products; this became a crucial step in the advancement of chemistry.
We must trust to nothing but facts: these are presented to us by nature and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.” – Antoine Lavoisier
Proposed the Law of Conservation of Mass
In 1778, through his quantitative chemical experiments, Lavoisier found that when mercury oxide is heated its weight decreases, and the oxygen gas it releases has exactly the same weight as the weight lost by the mercury oxide. These quantitative chemical experiments performed by Lavoisier supported a new fundamental law of nature – the law of conservation of mass. In France, it is still taught as Lavoisier’s Law –
Pioneer of Chemical Nomenclature
At Lavoisier’s time, there was virtually no rational system of chemical nomenclature. In 1787, many chemists including Antoine Lavoisier, Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau, Claude-Louis Berthollet, and Antoine François de Fourcroy suggested new methods for the reforms of chemical nomenclature to the Academy. Following Lavoisier’s new oxygen theory of chemistry, some 55 substances were provisionally listed as elements in this new system of chemical nomenclature titled Méthode de nomenclature chimique (Method of Chemical Nomenclature, 1787); these substances could not be decomposed into simpler substances by any known chemical means. With this, the concept of the Classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water was ended. Nomenclature developed by Lavoisier was soon used in Europe and the United States and became a common convention in chemistry; it was the beginning of the anti-phlogistic approach to the field.
While I thought myself employed only in forming a nomenclature, and while I proposed to myself nothing more than to improve the chemical language, my work transformed itself by degrees, without my being able to prevent it, into a treatise upon the Elements of Chemistry.” – Antoine Lavoisier
Central Contributor to the Chemical Revolution
With his precise quantitative chemical experiments, proposing the law of conservation of mass, and giving an orderly and scientific nomenclature to chemical substances, Lavoisier is considered a central contributor to the chemical revolution.
Other Notable Works
Phlogiston Theory deserves the dust bin!
Through his precise experiments and making a meticulous record of them, Lavoisier showed that oxygen was a key ingredient in both air and water, and that water was not an element rather it was a compound made up of hydrogen and oxygen, that fire was a process of chemically combining with oxygen, and that oxygen was bound up in rocks; these findings vehemently discarded phlogiston theory, a superseded scientific theory that postulated the existence of a fire-like element called ‘phlogiston.’
Although many chemists discarded his antiphlogistic approach, Lavoisier kept on his experiments to provide definitive proof. In one such experiment to determine the composition of water, he passed water through a red-hot iron gun barrel, and he found that the oxygen had formed an oxide with the iron and the hydrogen emerged from the end of the pipe.
Lavoisier submitted these findings to the Académie des Sciences in April 1784; however, these findings remained unaccepted by many chemists. Later, Lavoisier, developed a new apparatus that utilized a pneumatic trough, a set of balances, a thermometer, and a barometer, all calibrated carefully, and he invited thirty savants to witness the decomposition and synthesis of water using this apparatus; this convinced many who attended the demonstration, establishing water as a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.
It required 85 parts by weight of oxygen and 15 parts of hydrogen to compose 100 parts of water.”
The First Text Book on Chemistry
In 1789, Lavoisier published a textbook titled Traité élémentaire de chimie (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry) in which he documented the new chemical nomenclature; this is considered the first modern textbook on Chemistry. At that time, the book had become so popular that in any event, it was sufficiently sound to convince the next generation.
After Lavoisier found that the air played an essential role in both combustion and respiration processes, he extended his new theory of combustion to respiration physiology, and in 1777, he read his first memoir related to this topic to the Academy of Sciences. In the winter of 1782/1783, Lavoisier in association with Laplace worked extensively in this field, and the results were published in a memoir, ‘On Heat.’ They designed an ice calorimeter to measure the amount of heat produced during combustion or respiration. Through many experiments, they found that respiration was, in fact, a slow combustion process; these findings accounted for the puzzling phenomenon of animal heat. Later, in cooperation with Armand Seguin, a French chemist and physiologist, Lavoisier devised an ambitious set of experiments to gauze the whole process of body metabolism and respiration. These pioneering works of Lavoisier inspired many physiologists.
Opposition – We don’t believe in Lavoisier’s work!
While trying to change the field of chemistry by introducing quantitative chemical experiments, Lavoisier faced heavy opposition from many British phlogistic scientists including Joseph Priestley, Richard Kirwan, James Keir, and William Nicholson who didn’t agree with Lavoisier’s theory that quantification of substances implies conservation of mass.
Black Marketing and Adulteration of Tobacco
After the revenue of the Ferme générale began to fall due to growing smuggling and adulteration of tobacco, Lavoisier devised a method to check whether the tobacco was adulterated; at that time, tobacco was most commonly adulterated with ash and water. Antoine Lavoisier: Science, Administration and Revolution By Arthur Donovan However, Lavoisier noticed that the addition of a small amount of ash improved the tobacco flavor. Once, while explaining this adulteration by a vendor, Lavoisier wrote,
His tobacco enjoys a very good reputation in the province… the very small proportion of ash that is added gives it a particularly pungent flavour that consumers look for. Perhaps the Farm could gain some advantage by adding a bit of this liquid mixture when the tobacco is fabricated.”
Lavoisier also noticed that the addition of a small amount of water also improved the tobacco product. Later, based on Lavoisier’s recommendation, a consistent 6.3% of water by volume was allowed in the tobacco they processed. Lavoisier, chemist, biologist, economist by Poirier, Jean Pierre He also introduced stringent checks in the movement of tobacco consignments across different cities; these reforms did not go well with retailers, which eventually brought grave consequences for Lavoisier during the French Revolution. Antoine Lavoisier: Science, Administration and Revolution By Arthur Donovan
Contributions to Agricultural Reforms
Lavoisier extensively campaigned for the establishment of a Royal Commission on Agriculture. While serving as the Secretary of the commission, Lavoisier made considerable efforts and spent his own money to improve the farming practices in the Sologne, an area of poor farm productivity. In 1788, he presented a report to the Commission in which he gave a detailed analysis of the ten years of his efforts to introduce new crops and types of livestock through his experiments. In his conclusion, he emphasized that despite the possibility of agricultural reforms, it was not feasible to wipe out traditional practices as the tax system had left little for tenant farmers.
The world’s largest chemical company owes to Lavoisier
Based on his scientific temperament and skills, Lavoisier was appointed a member of the Gunpowder Commission in 1775, where he made significant contributions in both the quantity and quality of French gunpowder, and it greatly improved the government’s revenue. While working for the commission, Lavoisier enjoyed both a house and a laboratory in the Royal Arsenal, where he spent his time between 1775 and 1792.
It is believed that Lavoisier had a formative influence in the establishment of the Du Pont gunpowder business as he trained Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, the founder of Du Pont; Du Pont is a popular American chemical company, which was once considered the world’s largest chemical company in terms of sales. Du Pont; One Hundred and Forty Years by William Sherman Dutton
Lavoisier and the French Revolution
During the initial phase of the French Revolution, Lavoisier loaned 71,000 livres to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (a French-American writer, economist, and publisher) to buy a printing works as he wanted du Pont to publish a newspaper, La Correspondance Patriotique, so that he could publish debates in the National Constituent Assembly as well as papers from the Academy of Sciences. Soon, the elder du Pont’s newspaper was disrupted by the revolution, but his son E.I. du Pont was successful in launching Le Republicain in which he published Lavoisier’s latest chemistry texts. Du Pont; One Hundred and Forty Years by William Sherman Dutton During this time, Lavoisier also headed the commission that recommended a uniform system of weights and measures; the new system, i.e., metric system, was adopted by the Convention on 1 August 1793; however, due to some political reasons, he had to quit his post at the commission on weights and measures on 23 December 1793. Reportedly, one of Lavoisier’s last major contributions to society was a proposal related to the reform of French education that he proposed to the National Convention.
Last Days & Guillotine
As the French Revolution progressed, the clamor for the abolition of Ferme générale became rife, and eventually, it was abolished in March 1791. In 1792, Lavoisier was forcefully deprived of his post at the Gunpowder Commission, and he was also forced to leave his house and laboratory at the Royal Arsenal. On 24 November 1793, an order was issued to arrest all the former tax farmers following which Lavoisier and other tax farmers faced nine accusations including scam to the state exchequer and adulteration of tobacco with water. Although Lavoisier meticulously defended himself and refuted financial accusations against him, the court refused his defense as it believed that by condemning Lavoisier and others, a huge sum could be recovered for the state by seizing their goods. Three Philosophers: Lavoisier, Priestley and Cavendish By W. R. Aykroyd
While convicting Lavoisier and others, Judge Coffinhal stated,
La République n’a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes; le cours de la justice ne peut être suspendu. (The Republic needs neither scholars nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed.)”
On 8 May 1794, the 50-year-old Antoine Lavoisier, along with his 27 co-defendants, was convicted and guillotined. Three Philosophers: Lavoisier, Priestley and Cavendish By W. R. Aykroyd While lamenting the beheading of Lavoisier, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, an Italian (later naturalized French) mathematician and astronomer, said,
Il ne leur a fallu qu’un moment pour faire tomber cette tête, et cent années peut-être ne suffiront pas pour en reproduire une semblable.” (It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.)”
Exoneration – Lavoisier was falsely convicted!
In 1795, after a year and a half of Lavoisier’s execution, the French government completely exonerated him. While delivering Lavoisier’s belongings to his widow, the government included a brief note that read,
To the widow of Lavoisier, who was falsely convicted.”
Lavoisier left behind a bee of legacy after his death. One of the main high schools (called “lycées” in French) is named after Lavoisier. A street in the 8th arrondissement is also named after him. Various statues have been erected after Lavoisier including the ones on the Hôtel de Ville and on the façade of the Cour Napoléon of the Louvre.
Lavoisier’s name is among the 72 names of eminent French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians that are inscribed on the Eiffel Tower and also on buildings around Killian Court at MIT in Cambridge, MA. A number of Lavoisier Medals have been issued in his honor by various organizations including the Société chimique de France, the International Society for Biological Calorimetry, and the DuPont company. In 1999, the American Chemical Society, Académie des sciences de L’institut de France and the Société Chimique de France recognized Lavoisier’s work as an International Historic Chemical Landmark. In 2018, a medal commemorating Franklin and Lavoisier was issued, marking the friendship of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin.
- Lavoisier inherited a large fortune at a very young age, at the age of five, upon his mother’s demise.
- In the initial first decade of his life, he didn’t attend any school, and it was only when he turned 11 that he began his schooling.
- At the age of 22, Lavoisier won a royal prize for an essay in which he laid out a plan for lighting city streets with olive oil.
- Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier, had many similarities; Lavoisier was the only son of his parents so was Marie, and like Lavoisier, Marie had also lost her mother at an early age. Lavoisier in the year one : the birth of a new science in an age of revolution by Bell, Madison Smartt
- After thirteen years of marriage, Marie-Anne Paulze began a long-term affair with Pierre-Samuel Dupont, one of Lavoisier’s colleagues; she kept this relationship with such discretion that no one suspected it until after Lavoisier’s death. Lavoisier in the year one : the birth of a new science in an age of revolution by Bell, Madison Smartt
- Lavoisier’s wife, Marie-Anne Paulze, was immensely talented in drawing, and she was the pupil of Jacques-Louis David, the icon of French neoclassical painting. She drew a portrait of Benjamin Franklin that she presented to him as a gift in 1788. Lavoisier in the year one : the birth of a new science in an age of revolution by Bell, Madison Smartt
- In 1769, he was a part of the team that worked on the first geological map of France.
- Reportedly, once a week, Antoine Lavoisier would welcome others into his lab to take part in chemistry experiments, but his most important collaborator was his young wife, Marie Anne.
- While working as a tax collector, Lavoisier would daily devote three hours in the morning and three at night to science, and Saturday was his favorite day when other scientists and enthusiasts would come to his house to discuss advances and theories. BBC
- Apart from identifying oxygen and hydrogen, he also discovered ‘nitrogen’ but instead chose “azot,” and azote is still the French word for nitrogen. The Guardian
- Lavoisier’s father wanted him to pursue law as a career and not science; his father had tried to convince him that science was merely a hobby, not a serious profession.
- Lavoisier pursued quantitative science; before Lavoisier, there had been a dominance of qualitative science for a long time.
- Judge Coffinhal, who read Lavoisier’s death warrant, was himself executed almost after three months of Lavoisier’s execution.