The life of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794)


"Lavoisier was a Parisian through and through and a child of the enlightenment," wrote biographer Henry Guerlac. The son of Jean-Antoine and Émilie Punctis Lavoisier, he entered Mazarin College when he was 11. There, he received a sound training in the arts and classics and an exposure to science that was the best in Paris. Forgoing his baccalaureate of arts degree, Lavoisier yielded to the influence of his father and studied law, receiving a law degree in 1763. But his interest in science prevailed, kindled by the geologist Jean-Étienne Guettard, whom he met at Mazarin. After graduation, he began a long collaboration with Guettard on a geological survey of France.

Lavoisier showed an early inclination for quantitative measurements and soon began applying his interest in chemistry to the analysis of geological samples, especially gypsum. Because of his flair for careful analyses and his prodigious output, he was elected to the Academy of Sciences at the age of 25. At the same time, Lavoisier used part of the fortune he had inherited from his mother to buy a share in the Ferme Générale, a private group that collected various taxes for the government. This fateful decision would later cost him his life at the height of his intellectual powers.

He married Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze on Dec. 16, 1771; he was 28, she was 14. "The marriage was a happy one," according to McKie. "Mme Lavoisier was possessed of a high intelligence; she took a great interest in her husband's scientific work and rapidly equipped herself to share in his labors. Later, she helped him in the laboratory and drew sketches of his experiments. She made many of the entries in his laboratory notebooks. She learned English and translated a number of scientific memoirs into French."

Lavoisier became further involved in public life in 1775, when he was appointed one of four commissioners of the Gunpowder Commission, charged with reforming and improving the production of gunpowder. Lavoisier moved his residence and laboratory to the arsenal in Paris, where for almost 20 years it drew many distinguished visitors. He devoted several hours every day and one full day a week to experiments in his laboratory. According to his wife: "It was for him a day of happiness; some friends who shared his views and some young men proud to be admitted to the honor of collaborating in his experiments assembled in the morning in the laboratory. There they lunched; there they debated. . . . It was there that you could have heard this man with his precise mind, his clear intelligence, his high genius, the loftiness of his philosophical principles illuminating his conversation."

Ironically, Lavoisier, the ardent and zealous chemical revolutionary, eventually was caught in the web of intrigue of a political revolution. The Traité was published in 1789, the same year as the storming of the Bastille. A year later, Lavoisier complained that "the state of public affairs in France . . . has temporarily retarded the progress of science and distracted scientists from the work that is most precious to them."

Lavoisier, however, could not escape the wrath of Jean-Paul Marat, the adamant revolutionary, who began publicly denouncing him in January 1791. During the Reign of Terror, arrest orders were issued for all of the Ferme Générale, including Lavoisier. On the morning of May 8, 1794, he was tried and convicted by the Revolutionary Tribunal as a principal in the "conspiracy against the people of France." He was sent to the guillotine that afternoon. The next day, his friend, the French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, remarked that "it took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it."


 

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The chemical heritage of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier | Combustion and the attack on phlogiston
A new chemistry emerges | Lavoisier's American legacy
The life of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) | Landmark designation

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