Profile: Antoine Lavoisier

Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) was a pioneer of modern chemistry. Born in Paris, France, in 1743, Lavoisier enjoyed a privileged life as the son of a prominent lawyer. His mother died when he was five years old and left a good amount of money for him. He studied at Collège des Quatre-Nations of the University of Paris between the ages of 11 and 18. He opted for a career in law much like his father instead of the sciences.

In the same year that he earned his license to practice law, 1746, Lavoisier also published his first scientific paper. In 1769, he was elected into the French Academy of Sciences- he was 26 years of age.

In 1772, Lavoisier discovered that diamond and coal were made of the same substance, and named this substance Carbon.

In the years leading up to 1779, Lavoisier worked with combustion reactions to find that elements like phosphorus and sulfur combined with something else in the atmosphere to make a different compound. He named Oxygen in 1779, and found that it makes up 20% of the atmosphere.

In 1777, he isolated Sulfur as an element. He also hypothesized that combustion and respiration were the same chemical reaction. He worked with the help of Pierre-Simon Laplace and a guinea pig to measure the heat and amount of carbon dioxide given off by the animal.

In 1783, Lavoisier coined the name hydrogen. Again with the help of Laplace, he burned hydrogen gas and oxygen gas to find that it formed water- proving that water was not an element itself but a compound.

In 1789, he published his Elementary Treatise on Chemistry, which effectively progressed theory into thinking about the relationship of compounds to elements and the identities of multiple elements. The list included oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, carbon, antimony, cobalt, copper, gold, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, platinum, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc. He also included light as an element. He also names a caloric element that later is proven to be invalid- many of his explanations hinge on this caloric identity. This, along with the inclusion of light, shows the “infancy of chemistry at the time”. 


Antoine and Marie-Anne 

Along with his science, Lavoisier worked with the French government to improve taxes and gunpowder. In 1771, Lavoisier married Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze who was just 13 years old. He was 28. This was in an attempt to keep Marie-Anne from marrying the Count d’Amerval who was 40 years of age and eager for a bride.

Marie-Anne was an integral part of Lavoisier’s work. She translated works from French to English, helped with laboratory work, and kept records. She wrote her own scientific criticisms of his papers, and drew more accurate diagrams of laboratory equipment.

With the rise of the French revolution in 1789, wealthier members of society, including Lavoisier, were condemned for their status. In 1794, her was named a traitor for his work with the french tax system. He died by the guillotine at the age of 50 on May 8, 1794 in Paris.

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