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Biography of Antoine Lavoisier

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (also Antoine Lavoisier after the French Revolution; 26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794; the "father of modern chemistry," was a French nobleman prominent in the histories of chemistry and biology. He named both oxygen (1778) and hydrogen (1783) and helped construct the metric system, put together the first extensive list of elements, and helped to reform chemical nomenclature. He was also the first to establish that sulfur was an element (1777) rather than a compound. He discovered that, although matter may change its form or shape, its mass always remains the same.

He was an administrator of the Ferme Générale and a powerful member of a number of other aristocratic councils. All of these political and economic activities enabled him to fund his scientific research. At the height of the French Revolution, he was accused by Jean-Paul Marat of selling adulterated tobacco, and of other crimes and was eventually guillotined a year after Marat's death. Benjamin Franklin was familiar with Antoine, as they were both members of the "Benjamin Franklin inquiries" into Mesmer and animal magnetism.

Early life

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. He was educated at the Collège des Quatre-Nations (also known as Collège Mazarin) from 1754 to 1761, 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. His education was filled with the ideals of the French Enlightenment of the time, and he was fascinated by Pierre Macquer's dictionary of chemistry. He attended lectures in the natural sciences. Lavoisier's devotion and passion for chemistry were largely influenced by Étienne Condillac, a prominent French scholar of the 18th century. His first chemical publication appeared in 1764. From 1763 to 1767, he studied geology under Jean-Étienne Guettard. In collaboration with Guettard, Lavoisier worked on a geological survey of Alsace-Lorraine in June 1767. At the age of 25, he was elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences, France's most elite scientific society, for an essay on street lighting and in recognition of his earlier research. In 1769, he worked on the first geological map of France.

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. She translated English documents for him, including Richard Kirwan's Essay on Phlogiston and Joseph Priestley's research. She created many sketches and carved engravings of the laboratory instruments used by Lavoisier and his colleagues. She edited and published Lavoisier’s memoirs (whether any English translations of those memoirs have survived is unknown as of today) and hosted parties at which eminent scientists discussed ideas and problems related to chemistry.

Final days, execution, and aftermath

Lavoisier was a powerful figure in the deeply unpopular Ferme Générale, 28 feudal tax collectors who were known to profit immensely by exploiting their position. He was branded a traitor by the Assembly under Robespierre, during the Reign of Terror, in 1794. He had also intervened on behalf of a number of foreign-born scientists including mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, granting them exception to a mandate stripping all foreigners of possessions and freedom. Lavoisier was tried, convicted, and guillotined on 8 May in Paris, at the age of 50.
Lavoisier was actually one of the few liberals in his position, although all tax collectors were executed during the Revolution. According to a (probably apocryphal) story, the appeal to spare his life so that he could continue his experiments was cut short by the judge: "La République n'a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes ; le cours de la justice ne peut être suspendu." ("The Republic needs neither scientists nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed.")

Lavoisier's 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.")

One and a half years following his death, Lavoisier was exonerated by the French government. When his private belongings were delivered to his widow, a brief note was included, reading "To the widow of Lavoisier, who was falsely convicted."

About a century after his death, a statue of Lavoisier was erected in Paris. It was later discovered that the sculptor had not actually copied Lavoisier's head for the statue, but used a spare head of the Marquis de Condorcet, the Secretary of the Academy of Sciences during Lavoisier's last years. Lack of money prevented alterations from being made. The statue was melted down during the Second World War and has not since been replaced. However, one of the main "lycées" (high schools) in Paris and a street in the 8th arrondissement are named after Lavoisier, and statues of him are found on the Hôtel de Ville (photograph, left) and on the façade of the Cour Napoléon of the Louvre.

Lavoisier is listed among eminent Roman Catholic scientists (see List of Roman Catholic cleric-scientists), and as such he defended his faith against those who attempted to use science to attack it. Louis Edouard Grimaux, author of the standard French biography of Lavoisier, and the first biographer to obtain access to Lavoisier’s papers, writes the following:
Raised in a pious family which had given many priests to the Church, he had held to his beliefs. To Edward King, an English author who had sent him a controversial work, he wrote, “You have done a noble thing in upholding revelation and the authenticity of the Holy Scripture, and it is remarkable that you are using for the defense precisely the same weapons which were once used for the attack."

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a familiar shape

it is very late at night.
my forehead is pressed to
the moist, wet window, and the
drizzling from the silent, gray billows
is patting the pane, my thoughts,
the Bible in my hands.

in my head, you are right
here with me, with your forehead

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