Modern Chemistry started with Lavoisier

Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794), Portrait together with his wife, by Jacques Luis David, 1788

It took centuries for the occult science of Alchemy to become the modern science of Chemistry. Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier, born on August 26, 1743, is considered as one of the fathers of modern chemistry.

Born to a wealthy family in Paris, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier inherited a large fortune at the age of five with the passing of his mother. His education was filled with the ideals of the French Enlightenment of the time, while he was studying chemistry, botany, astronomy, and mathematics. He was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and even obtained his license to practice law in 1764 before turning to a life of science.

In 1771, at the age of 28, Lavoisier married 13-year-old Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, the daughter of a co-owner of the Ferme générale. Over time, she proved to be a scientific colleague to her husband, translating English documents for him, creating many sketches and carved engravings of the laboratory instruments used by Lavoisier and his colleagues, as well as editing and publishing Lavoisier’s memoirs later on.

Among the achievements of Lavoisier was the discovery of the role of oxygen in the rusting of metal, as well as oxygen’s role in animal and plant respiration. Working with Pierre-Simon Laplace, Lavoisier conducted experiments that showed that respiration was essentially a slow combustion of organic material using inhaled oxygen. Lavoisier’s explanation of combustion disproved the phlogiston theory, which postulated that materials released a substance called phlogiston when they burned. Lavoisier’s researches included some of the first truly quantitative chemical experiments. He carefully weighed the reactants and products in a chemical reaction, which was a crucial step in the advancement of chemistry. He showed that, although matter can change its state in a chemical reaction, the total mass of matter is the same at the end as at the beginning of every chemical change. Thus, for instance, if a piece of wood is burned to ashes, the total mass remains unchanged. Furthermore, he determined that the components of water were oxygen and hydrogen, and that air was a mixture of gases, primarily nitrogen and oxygen.

Meanwhile, Lavoisier also had become a very powerful figure in the unpopular Ferme Générale, i.e. 28 feudal tax collectors who were known to profit immensely by exploiting their position. He was branded a traitor under Robespierre, during the Reign of Terror following the French revolution in 1794. Lavoisier was tried, convicted, and guillotined on 8 May in Paris, at the age of 50. His importance to science was expressed by Lagrange who lamented the beheading by saying:

“Cela leur a pris seulement un instant pour lui couper la tête, mais la France pourrait ne pas en produire une autre pareille en un siècle.” (“It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century.”)

At yovisto you can watch a panel discussion about ‘Chemistry on Canvas – A Portrait of the Lavoisier Family‘ from the World Science Festival.

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