8 May 1794
A famous chemist, Lavoisier had friends who tried unsuccessfully to intervene with the courts on his behalf. The courts replied, "The Republic has no use for savants." (1) It was said of M. Lavoisier that he was serene to the end, accepting the judgment of the courts. What brought this giant of the chemical revolution to this tragic end? Perhaps the roots of his fall can be found in an exclusive interview, granted by Marie-Anne Pirette Paulze (Madame Lavoisier) several months before his death, to our Woodrow Wilson Institute News (WWIN) correspondent.
WWIN: "Libérté, Fraterneté et Equalité - Liberty, Brotherhood and Equality". These are the words being chanted by the Citizen mobs. They roam the streets, searching out the remaining supporters of the recently-deposed regime of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Nowhere does their "justice" appear more unjust than in the arrest of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier from his home on 24 December, 1793. In this time of chaos and confusion, Madame Lavoisier (Marie-Anne Pirette Paulze) appeared calm.
WWIN: How good of you to see me, Mme. Lavoisier. When I visited your husband's laboratory the other day I saw that you were engaged in an experiment. Would you tell me about it?
Mme. L: Yes! Yes! Antoine and I were in the laboratory along with M. Seguin. We looked quite silly, really. Our associate, M. Sequin agreed to have his body wrapped completely in a varnished silk bag. The sweat from his body was kept inside the bag. It was even sealed to his lips with turpentine and pitch! He was breathing through a tube into Antoine's collecting flasks. This was Antoine's most recent experiment on the respiration of air in living organisms. I was writing down Antoine's observations and sketching the experiment. That was when they charged in to arrest my husband.
WWIN: There is much unrest in Paris these days. Your husband's troubles apparently arose from his duties as fermiér (tax collector) from 1768 - 1791. Would you care to comment on the charges of Citizen Marat.
Mme. L.: The charges are completely false. Watering the soldier's tobacco, indeed! Antoine developed a technique of moistening the leaves so that the tobacco would not be dry and brittle! It was no crime for my husband to invest his mother's inheritance in the Fermés Generalé. The fermiérs paid a fixed sum of money every year to the King. It was then their responsibility to collect the taxes for their region - taxes on the tobacco, the salt, the materials that come and go from each city etc. etc. He merely wanted a reliable source of income so that he would have the time and money to finance his laboratory and his work for the Academy of Science. These past few years have been troubled times for all of France, as you well know. Antoine has been almost the sole support of the work at the Academy of Sciences. He spares no expense for his laboratory.
Antoine has been a man devoted to the people of France. It was he who helped abolish the detestable tax piéd forchu against the Jews. He would not be satisfied at schools only for the rich so he established free schools for the peasant people of his tax district. He advocated the use of fire hydrants, so as to protect the city in times of fires. He was the one who supervised the moving of the low-grade gunpowder OUT OF the Artillery and brought the better quality gunpowder IN. These silly Citizen mobs listen to any story they hear. Their leaders were suspicious and argued that Antoine was trying to disarm the Artillery! Such nonsense. But these are troubled times. Is is true that elsewhere they are calling this "The Reign of Terror"? How true those words are. His fermiér associations of the past are a perfect excuse for Citizen Marat. That scoundrel!
WWIN: So you think that his arrest was politically motivated?
Mme. L.: But, of course, Antoine has many enemies. That journalist Marat‹you know he had ambitions for scientific achievement. He wrote a paper in which he claimed to have observed the element "fire"! My husband was unimpressed. Just as Antoine exposed his poor chemistry to the Academy of Science, I shall expose this charlatan "Friend of the People".
There are even those in the French Academy of Science who have visited our home, eaten many fine meals, spent many hours conversing with all manner of learned men from all of Europe. They too have their jealousies toward Antoine. His work in the Fermés Generalé supported all of their science in recent years, but this they forget. Instead they prefer to say that he was an ambitious man. He entered the Academy when he was but 23. They say it was his father and aunt who pulled their aristocratic strings for his admission. They forget his gold medal from the King for his street lamp design (1766). They forget his work with Guettard mapping the geology and mineralogy of France (1764-1770). They forget his continual need for pli cachété sealing his scientific observations in envelopes, lest others steal his works. Instead, they say he stole others' ideas. It was he alone who developed the theories to explain the works of others. Antoine expanded the experimental work of others. Using the balance, fitting bits and pieces of observations together, explaining their significance, arranging it all into one grand picture - that is what Antoine did best. These men who accuse him, these petty little men who desire only to have their names made a small reference to in the works of the great Antoine Lavoisier!
WWIN: If you would please, Madame Lavoisier, tell us something about the personal life you have shared with your husband?
Mme. L.: (pause) My Antoine is a man of great devotion.
Antoine has been a devoted husband to me, just as I have been a devoted wife to him. We have a very happy marriage. Yes, it has been happy, (pause) even without children. I did so much of my own growing up with Antoine. He was 28 and I, not yet 14, when we married in 1771. In 1768, after he had been elected to the French Academy of Sciences, Antoine met my father in the Fermés Generalé, what you in your country call the Internal Revenue Service. My father held the controlling shares of the Fermés, so naturally Antoine would need to discuss business with him. That is how we met. This tall gentle-mannered man with grey eyes grew fond of my blue eyes and brunette hair! I set out from the start to make myself useful to Antoine. He agreed and I studied with David, the talented artist who painted a portrait of us. I take down the observations and make the illustrations in his laboratory notebooks. I am comfortable in English and Latin and have even studied what science Antoine would teach me as he does his work. This talent I have used to translate the works of other scientists so that Antoine can assess their work.
He is a man devoted to his work. Before his arrest, every day he would work in his beloved laboratory; from 6 to 9 in the morning and again from 7 until 10 at night. One day a week was his jour de bonheur, day only for science.
It was for him, a day of happiness; ...It was there that you should have seen and heard this man with his precise mind, his clear intelligence, his high genius, the loftiness of his philosophical principles illuminating his conversation. (5)Even now, in the Bastille, that place of infamy, he writes his Collected Works. Antoine is known to edit, rewrite and even rethink his earlier conclusions about his experiments. He never grows weary of his science. To save time for his experiments, he once put himself on a bread and milk diet!
He is a man devoted to great ideas and great words. He himself could foresee the importance and greatness of his own work. This is what Antoine said:
This theory (burning) is not, as I hear it called, the theory of the French chemists. It is mine. It is a right that I claim by the judgment of my contemporaries and at the bar of history. (5)And:
All young chemists adopt the theory and from that I conclude that the revolution in chemistry has come to pass. (5)
Mme. L.: His early work was much concerned about matters related to geology. Antoine concluded that the various layers of terre nouvelle are evidence of a cyclic advancement and retreat of the sea. This theory about the stratification of the earth (1776) introduced new ideas into the study of geologic time.
Since 1766 he has collected data for himself, and begged others to do likewise on their journeys. He is especially interested in data about the pressure and temperature of the air. He plans someday to compose this data into a theory about the changes that alter the surface of the earth. He says that he prefers to call himself a phyiscien, a man of physics, though he is an adjoint chimiste at the Academy of Sciences.
Antoine did his first "chemical" investigation on the rock gypsum (1764). He has made many careful measurements about its properties and interactions. This was one of the works that brought him to the attention of the French Academy of Sciences.
Antoine is most curious also, about the substance "water". Previously it was thought to be one of only four "elements". In 1770 he demonstrated that "water" cannot be changed into "earth". With just his balance, some water, and a boiling apparatus that did not allow the emanations from the boiling water to escape, Antoine proved that materials leech out of the porous glass. This is what they previously called water turning into earth! With Pierre Laplace from 1781-1783 he showed that water could be formed when hydrogen and oxygen gases were burned together. But those more modern names came later. Antoine's revolutionary work, yes, revolutionary work, has changed even the words that are used to discuss Chemistry. Then he was still using the alchemist's phrases "inflammable air" and "fixed air". Such silliness! Can you imagine? The stubborness of some people to continue using such terms when Antoine has already explained it all in his magnum opus of 1789‹"Traite Elementaire de Chimie". Antoine has published this new nomenclature that lists 55 "elements". Of course, he has kept some of the old "elements". Not phlogiston to be sure, but those "elements" that men of reason would still agree upon. Let me quote him for you:
We must clean house thoroughly, for they have made use of an enigmatic language peculiar to themselves, which in general presents one meaning for the adept and another for the vulgar, and at the same time contains nothing that is rationally intelligible either for one or for the other." (1)It was my Antoine who wrote in 1772 (but did not publish) that a single substance could exist as solid, liquid and gas. The very same substance! The only way they differ, is the amount of the element "fire" that they contain! Such an idea was not conceived of before! Oh, yes. M. Priestley of England was the first to isolate his dephlogisticated air (1773). M. Priestley wrote and published not one, but three volumes:"Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air". I myself translated Priestley's works for Antoine. I know what was in his original papers and I know what was in Antoine's work. M. Priestley called this emanation from red calx of mercury (mercuric oxide) dephlogisticated air. Dephlogisticated air, indeed! It was Antoine's keen insight and refined measurements that have laid this Phlogiston nonsense to rest for men of reason (1786). If Antoine did not make reference to M. Priestley in his writings, it is only because Antoine's works went so much beyond this nonsense of phlogiston flowing out of a substance, thereby causing that substance to burn.
Most recently Antoine has been working to establish a precise unit for metric mass, length and time. Using his most precise balances, he weighs only a given volume of only the most purely distilled water.
Oh yes, my Antoine is no little figure to deal with. He has contributed much to Science and much to his country.
WWIN: Thank-you Mme. Lavoisier for talking with us at such an unsettling time in your life.
Mme. L.: I thank-you for taking such time and care to worry about Antoine Lavoisier.
WWIN: It is perhaps fitting to end this story with a quote from M. LaGrange, a mathematician and friend of the Lavoisier family:
It took but a moment to cut off that head, though a hundred years perhaps will be required to produce another like it.(1)
The suggested reading list is based upon the opinions of the authors of this report. It is intended only as a guide for the general reader.
Bernard Jaffe, The Story of Chemistry From Ancient Alchemy to Nuclear Fission,4th ed., Dover Publications, Inc., New York, New York, 1976, pp.69-83.
--Excellent anecdotes from Lavoisier's life.
Henry Guerlac, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier: Chemist and Revolutionary, Scribner, New York, NY, 1975. 174 pages.
--Short book that is easy to read and interesting. It was written by the man most people considered to be the expert on Lavoisier.
Douglas McKie, Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer, Henry Schuman, New York, NY, 428 pages.
--This is an interesting , somewhat longer treatment of Lavoisier with an excellent bibliography at the end. Again it is easy reading.
Aaron J. Ihde, The Development of Modern Chemistry, Dover Publications, New York, NY,1984, pp.57-88.
--This is a segment of a much longer history of Chemistry that has information similar to work by Jaffe and Partington.
J.R.Partington, A Short History of Chemistry, Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY, 1989, pp. 122-152.
--This is a fact filled segment in a book full of facts about historically significant figures from the Chemistry world. It is somewhat dry reading but useful nonetheless.
Antoine Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry, Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY,1965, 511 pages.
--If you would like to get a good flavor of Lavoisier and his chemistry this is the book to read. It is his revolutionary work of 1789 that helped to change chemistry forever.
1. Henry Guerlac, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier: Chemist and Revolutionary, Scribner, New York, NY, 1975. 174 pages
2. Aaron J. Ihde, The Development of Modern Chemistry, Dover Publications , New York, NY, 1984, pp.57-88.
3. Bernard Jaffe, The Story of Chemistry From Ancient Alchemy to Nuclear Fission, 4th ed., Dover Publications, Inc., New York, New York, 1976, pp.69-83.
4. Antoine Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry, Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY,1965, 511 pages.
5. Douglas McKie, Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer, Henry Schuman, New York, NY, 428 pages.
6. J.R.Partington, A Short History of Chemistry, Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY, 1989, pp. 122-152.