Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was born in Paris in 1743. His forebears had done well in the law over
several generations and by this time the Lavoisier family was well off.
Antoine, who demonstrated great intellectual prowess at an early age, enjoyed
the best education that was available in France at that time.
He attended the College Mazarin, the only school in Paris which taught
sciences and mathematics as well as literature and history. It was this
originality which determined Antoine Lavoisier's destiny to become the founder
of modern chemistry.
It had taken a Newton to clear away the massive intellectual barriers,
which Aristotle and the medieval scholars had erected through their misunderstanding
of the nature of inertia, to reach an understanding of celestial and terrestrial
mechanics. Similarly it required a Lavoisier to throw over the phlogiston
theory of combustion in order to establish the existence of oxygen, the
nature of oxidation processes, (in particular the way in which carbon was
oxidised, in combustion, to become carbon dioxide) and the reverse process
to oxidation, that of reduction of oxides (metallic oxides particularly)
to their constituent elements.
He achieved all this through his insistence on the precise measurements
of the materials he used in his experiments, and his capacity to think through
the fog of the phlogiston theory which bedevilled the understanding that
the chemists of the day brought to their experiments. Although there were
many chemists in England, Scotland and other parts of Europe who played
a part in bringing down the phlogiston theory, Lavoisier was pre-eminent
both in his experimental ingenuity and in the boldness of his theoretical
As well as devoting considerable time and energy to his career as a scientist,
Lavoisier played a very active role as a civil servant and taxation official.
This latter role enabled him to make a substantial fortune, and he spent
much of this wealth on his scientific activities. He was asked to advise
the Court of Louis XVI on tax issues and economic policy more generally,
and he identified with the anti-protectionist party of the day in advocating
the elimination of barriers to trade both within France itself and at the
borders. He was also asked to advise on the sewerage and water supply problems
In 1792 the authority of the King and Queen completely collapsed. The
previous year Lavoisier had been attacked by Jean Paul Marat, the left-wing
pamphleteer, in the following words:
I denounce to you the coryphaeus---the leader of the chorus---of the
charlatans, Master Lavoisier, son of a land-grabber, apprentice-chemist,
pupil of the Genevan stock-jobber Necker, a Farmer General, Commissioner
for Gunpowder and Saltpetre, director of the Discount Bank, secretary to
the king, member of the Academy of Science, intimate of Vauvilliers, unfaithful
administrator of the Paris Food Commission, and the greatest schemer of
our times. Would you believe that this little gentleman who enjoys an income
of 40,000 livres and whose only claim to public recognition is that he
imprisoned Paris by cutting off the fresh air with a wall that cost the
poor people 33 million livres and that he moved gunpowder from the Arsenal
into the Bastille on the night of July 12 and 13, is engaged in a devilish
intrigue to get himself elected as administrator of the department of Paris.
By 1794 the Left had captured power, the King and Queen were executed,
and Lavoisier lacked the political sagacity to realise that his own life
was in danger. He was sent to the guillotine on 8 May 1794 by the Revolutionary
Monsieur Lavoisier and his Wife by Jacques-Louis David, 1788, courtesy
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