Friday, November 9, 2007


Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was born in 1743 to Jean-Antoine Lavoisier, a prominent lawyer, and Emilie Punctis, who belonged to a rich and influential family, and who died when Antoine-Laurent was five years old. He was basically raised by his maiden Marie and Antoine Lavoisieraunt Mlle Constance Punctis, who arranged for his education at the College Mazarin, which was noted for its faculty of science.

Although young Antoine completed a law degree in accordance with family wishes, his true calling was in science. On the basis of his early scientific work, primarily in geology, he was elected at the age of 25—to the Academy of Sciences, France’s most elite scientific society.

In the same year as his election to the Academy, in order to finance his scientific research, he bought into the Ferme Générale, the private corporation that collected taxes for the Crown on a for profit (as you can see, “privatization” is hardly a new idea). A few years later he married the daughter of another “tax farmer.” Her name was Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, and she was not quite 14 at the time. Madame Lavoisier learned English, in order to translate the work of British chemists like Joseph Priestley and Henry Cavendish for her husband. She also studied art and engraving and illustrated Lavoisier’s scientific experiments.

Lavoisier has been called the “father of modern chemistry” for good reason. He established the principle of conservation of mass in chemistry and physics, and performed a series of experiments which, combined with the work of Priestly and Cavendish, overthrew the theory of phlogiston as an explanation of combustion, and thereafter the swept away the classical theory of the elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Lavoisier’s replacement table of the elements ran to some 33 “irreducible substances” most of which were what we today recognize as elements, such as mercury, sulfur, and oxygen, which he renamed from “dephlogistonized air.” He also performed such flashy experiments as demonstrating that diamond is made from carbon by burning one in an atmosphere of pure oxygen.

During the Reign of Terror in 1794, Antoine Lavoisier was arrested, along with 27 others, by the French Revolutionary Tribune for abusing the office of Ferme Générale by adulterating tobacco with water. They were guillotined the same day. When asked for his defense, Lavoisier is famously said to have remarked, “I am a scientist,” to which the tribunal replied, “The Revolution has no need of scientists.” Then “snick” went the head of Lavoisier. That’s the famous part of the story, anyway, usually given as a cautionary tale about the anti-science nature of revolutions.

Popular accounts often omit the predatory nature of the Ferme Générale, which was, after all, basically a protection racket, there being no limit to the taxes collected except what the tax collectors could gouge from the populace. The Crown got its share, but everything above that was pure profit, and the agency was very profitable, profitable enough to finance the purchase of diamonds to burn, something which was probably well-known to the revolutionaries.

So Lavoisier, despite actually being a politically liberal who had worked for many reforms, was vulnerable to the revolutionary fervor of the times. Still, he might have survived, were it not for the fact that he had a famous enemy, one Jean-Paul Marat. Yes, that Marat. Marat

Why did Marat hate Lavoisier? Because, years before, Marat had applied for membership in the French Academy and had been rejected, with Lavoisier being a major factor in the rejection. It seems that Marat had taken to the idea of “animal magnetism” as propounded by Franz Mesmer, a process also called Mesmerism, and which is now called hypnosis. The French Academy had appointed a commission of scientists, which included Lavoisier, and also the American Ambasador, one Benjamin Franklin to look into the matter. The commission concluded that animal magnetism was “the product of mere imagination,” thus dashing Marat’s hopes for acceptance.

Think of it perhaps as being denied tenure.

So fate set up Laviosier for the perfect storm of vengeance, from Marat, over the professional slight, from the revolutionary tribunal over the tax farming business, and perhaps even from those who had been outraged by the extravagance of burning a fabulous gemstone simply to prove that it was just another form of coal.

The story doesn’t end there, though. Lavoisier’s widow remarried, to an Englishman whose language she spoke (in more ways than one) because of her service to her brilliant husband. The Englishman’s name was Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford. Thompson had been born in America, and was a Tory who fled the colonies after the American Revolution, leaving his wife behind (forever, as it turned out). He conducted studies on the physics of gunpowder explosions and manufactured munitions. During the course of boring out cannons, he took careful measurements of the heat generated. On the basis of those experiments, using the same methods whereby Lavoisier had overthrown the theory of phlogiston he established that one of Lavoisier’s proposed elements, caloric, could not be an element, and must be for form of energy, of motion (albeit, motion at the smallest scale). This was published in 1798.

What part did Marie-Anne play in all of this? She and Thompson were married in 1804 (Thompson’s wife having died some time before), and separated shortly thereafter. So Marie-Anne came too late as Thompson’s wife to be said to have played a role in his earlier researches. Still, there might be more to it all than that, but I’m not sure I can get through all the layers of irony in the stories of these interwoven lives, to say precisely what.


cezar said...

Well, one of the few places on the net regarding Antoine Lavoisier. Stormy times, even killing times :))

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Αγγελος said...

How could Marat have been instrumental in Lavoisier's arrest and execution in May 1794, given that he had been murdered in July 1793?

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Matador said...

If you're going to write about history at least get a basic grasp of the facts before you do so. Just imagine how scientists, such as yourself, would react to historians pontificating about science having barely skimmed the relevant Wikipedia pages…? As the fellow above remarked, Marat was dead long before Lavoisier's arrest, nor did he ever apply for membership of the Academie. He sought its "approbation" (approval) instead – not given although they did commend his ingenious method of experimentation – for his discoveries on fire and light. He also came out against Mesmer as you would have noticed if you'd bothered to read any of his thoughts on the subject – eg his Mémoire on Medical Electricity or Les Charlatans Modernes.
Lavoisier was arrested for being a member of the Fermier-General, a hated institution that subcontracted the onerous task of taxation and made a fortune from doing so. The best account of the rivalry between the two men can be found in Jean-Pierre Poirier's biography of Lavoisier or his contribution to 'Marat, homme de science?', eds. Bertrand and Lemaire.