|Lavoisier and his wife in his Royal Arsenal laboratory.|
What with climate change deniers, anti-evolutionists, new earth enthusiasts, the Republican cretans, and Tea Party zealots, a lot of scientists these days are feeling pretty put upon and threatened by politics. But, believe me, it could be worse. Ask Antoine Lavoisier.
The French Aristocrat was indisputably the most famous and important scientist in the world. He is rightfully considered the Father of Modern Chemistry and made major contribution to biology as well. Most famously he identified and named oxygen as essential to combustion. His English contemporary, the theologian/philosopher/scientist Joseph Priestley had isolate the element but didn’t understand what he had found insisting until he died that it was dephlogisticated air, a particularly pure form of common air deprived of its phlogiston, a theoretic substance within bodies released during combustion. Lavoisier would have none of that.
He also isolated, identified, and named Hydrogen. Other accomplishments included helping construct the metric system, creating the first extensive list of elements, reforming chemical nomenclature, establishing sulfur as an element rather than a compound, predicting the existence of silicon and discovering discovered that, although matter may change its form or shape, its mass always remains the same.
That’s a pretty impressive portfolio of accomplishments. You would think that a scientist of such enormous achievement would be admired by the self-avowed worshipers of reason at the head of the ever-tumultuous revolutionary French regimes. You would be wrong.
Like many minor aristocrats, Lavoisier had been generally supportive of the early stages of the Revolution, but became increasingly alienated by growing violence and enmity to the Catholic Church to which he was devoted. Despite generally trying to remain aloof from the political turmoil around him, it was known that he was generally as conservative as his English rival Priestly was radical. After the execution of Louis XVI in January 1783, his days were numbered.
Lavoisier was born to a wealthy family in Paris on August 26, 1743, the son of an attorney at the Parlement of Paris. His mother died when he was five years old leaving him a substantial fortune of his own. His formal schooling began at age 11 at the Collège des Quatre-Nations in Paris. In his final years before matriculation he, became obsessed with science, particularly chemistry, botany, astronomy, and mathematics under the tutelage of Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, a noted astronomer.
Despite these passions the young man dutifully follow his father into a legal education, graduating with a Bachelor of Law in 1763 and was admitted to the bar the following year. He never practiced, however, and began devoting himself to his experiments. He published his first article on chemistry the year he graduated law school and read the paper before the prestigious French Academy of Science. In 1766 he was awarded a gold medal by the King for an essay on the problems of urban street lighting. Then he studied geology under Jean-Étienne Guettard, a leading Enlightenment scholar. That led to an appointment to a geological survey of Alsace-Lorraine in 1767. In 1768 his rapid advancement was recognized by his appointment to membership in the Academy.
Around that time he picked up a side line to assure himself of a steady stream of income while leaving plenty of time for his experiments. That side line would help lead to his downfall. He bought a share of the Ferme générale, a corporation which lent money to the Government and Court in exchange for the right to collect taxes and import duties. He became a part time fermier généraux—literally tax farmer—a position that was a license to print money. It was also widely despised by those from whom it collected taxes and seen as enormously corrupt.
At the age of 28 Lavoisier married the even wealthier Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, the 13-year-old daughter of a senior member of the Ferme générale. Despite the age difference, it was a good match and the well-educated a talented young woman became the scientist’s most important associate as well as his wife. She kept his note, collaborated on his efforts to systematize chemical nomenclature, and translated important English scientific papers, including those of Priestly. She even made sketches and engravings to illustrate Lavoisier’s experiments.
In 1772 he began the long series of experiments on combustion that led him finally to identify oxygen and dispute Priestley’s conclusion in his famous Easter Memoir in 1778.
In addition to his regular scientific work and his lucrative activities as a tax collector, Lavoisier won another rich plum when he was appointed one of four members of the Royal Gunpowder Commission, which was charged with improving the quality French powder and improving the manufacturing process. He was very successful at this and turned a former loss for the Crown to a profit making enterprise and significantly improved French arms. As part of the deal he was also given a home and a laboratory at the Royal Arsenal where he lived and worked between 1775 and 1792.
Those were the happiest and most productive days of his life. Working in close cooperation with a young and beautiful wife he adored, he made discovery after discover, published important papers, reaped honors. And the family’s already considerable fortunes were fattened by the steady stream of income from the Ferme générale and Gun Powder commission. Despite his royal patronage, he stayed mostly away from the intrigue and distraction of Court life—and from the rising discontent bubbling under the surface of the country.
It all started to fall apart in 1789 with the eruption of the Revolution—which he quietly supported in its early days. Knowing that the Ferme générale was widely unpopular, Lavoisier proposed reforms which would reduce perceived corruption and ease the onerous tax burden on the lower levels of society. But anger at the corporation was too much. It was dissolved and its fermiers généraux publicly reviled and humiliated. Next he was dismissed from the Gun Powder Commission and forced to leave his home and laboratory.
In 1791 Jean-Paul Marat, the radical journalist, propagandist, and popular leader of the sans-coulottes singled Lavoisier out for attack. He charged that the scientist had become rich as a tax collector with a scheme to “adulterate French tobacco.” No formal charges were immediately filed, but he found himself if mounting danger. Perhaps when Marat was assassinated he felt the crisis had passed.
Indeed despite his distress at the mounting violence and anticlericism of the Revolution, he seemed to feel that his personal prestige as a scientist would insulate him. He even spent some of that prestige in an appeal to allow foreign born scientists to leave the country. Those scientists were given leave, but his meddling angered many in power.
In August of 1793 the Academy, and all other learned societies were repressed, stripping Lavoisier of his last layer of protection.
Then at the height of the Reign of Terror Maximilien de Robespierre, the demagogic leader of the Convention ordered the arrest of former fermiers généraux including Lavoisier. In addition to the general charges of corruption against the others, he was also charged with the alleged tobacco adulteration scheme.
On May 8, the scientist was arrested and brought to trial. An appeal for clemency so that he could continue his vital scientific research was harshly denied by the revolutionary judge who said, “The Republic needs neither scientists nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed.” He and his 27 other co-defendants were immediately taken from court to the guillotine.
Robespierre, who had over played his hand, followed Lavoisier to the guillotine just three months later. By the end of 1795 the new government officially exonerated him returning his confiscated possessions with the note “To the widow of Lavoisier, who was falsely convicted.” She spent the rest of her life organizing and publishing her late husband’s notes.
Meanwhile, Lavosier’s old scientific rival Priestly had his own problems for opposite reasons. Priestly was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. Unfortunately he lived in England which was at war with the Republic and was an unpopular religious Dissenter. In 1791 a mob, whipped up by Tory rhetoric, attacked and burned his Birmingham home and laboratory. Eventfully he had to flee to the United States with the assistance and support of Thomas Jefferson. He settled in Pennsylvania where he concentrated on his preaching. He introduced English style Unitarianism, which differed from the theology emerging from the New England churches, to the middle-Atlantic region.
In the end, both men were honored. Fat lot of good it did Lavosier’s health.