A Brief History
On May 8, 1794, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, the man generally regarded as the Father of Modern Chemistry, was put to death on the guillotine during the Reign of Terror period of the French Revolution. It seems this man of noble birth who had such an enormous impact on the sciences of chemistry and biology was more than merely a scientist, but also a businessman and an agent of the Ancien Régime, the monarchy of France prior to the Revolution.
Born in Paris in 1743, Antoine was given a fine education (earning a degree in law which he never practiced), which he put to good use, discovering the role of Oxygen in combustion. He was responsible for identifying and naming Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Sulfur as an element rather than as a compound. (Although you may often read of Joseph Priestley as the discoverer of Oxygen, Priestly did not recognize Oxygen as an element, which Lavoisier did.) His work included compiling a list of elements and participated in the invention of the metric system. Lavoisier was responsible for a system of chemical nomenclature and discovered stoichiometry, the law of conservation of mass. He even predicted the discovery of silicon.
Sadly, this great scientist was declared an enemy of the Revolution for his previous activities with the Ferme Générale, an agency of repression of the common people that took taxes and fees without any clear accountability. He was also accused of tax fraud and selling adulterated tobacco, an illegal practice that became common in France, especially by black marketers in which ash and water was added to the tobacco to increase the weight at which the product was sold. In fact, Lavoisier had himself invented a procedure for testing tobacco for such adulteration, making it unlikely he engaged in the practice himself. Lavoisier had also discovered that adding a small amount of water to tobacco improved the flavor and performance of the leaf, but that adding more than that small amount would make the tobacco smell and taste bad. At his recommendation, a consistent 6.3% of water was added to tobacco, and all tobacco was to be tested by the Government for adherence to this standard. To account for the added weight, every 17 ounces of tobacco sold would be charged as 16 ounces. As good as this sounds for the consumer, tobacco merchants were angry at the oversight of their business, probably contributing to the charges against Lavoisier.
From 1775 to 1792 Lavoisier was in charge of gunpowder formulation and production for France, a post that gave him access to government laboratories aiding his pursuits in other areas of chemistry. His leadership and science helped France produce greater quantities and better quality gunpowder and having an influence on the formation of the chemical/gunpowder giant Du Pont.
Despite mounting a credible defense for himself and some of his co-defendants, Lavoisier was inevitably led to the guillotine and beheaded, his wealth and property seized by the new Revolutionary government, a possible motive for the sham trial and execution. Thus, at the age of 50, Antoine Lavoisier lost his life and the world of science lost one of its brightest lights. Along with his general contributions to science, Lavoisier was a humanitarian and social reformer, interested in improving the lot of the public at large, with an interest in improving the quality of drinking water and air to breathe. Lavoisier was as adept at continuing the research started by others to its logical conclusion (as with Priestley’s work) as he was researching his own original theories. His work included research into how the body uses fuel and Oxygen in a form of combustion to make energy and heat and was an early researcher into metabolism. Of course, he also wrote extensively about his findings, leaving a body of work for those that followed. During his life he earned awards and honors, and other awards have been given in his name since.
The French Revolution had taken at least some direction from the American Revolution, and as such offered the opportunity for tremendous reform of society for the benefit of the common people, but the fervor that characterized the Revolution had turned into fanaticism and parochial, selfish tendencies, resulting in the mass slaughter of innocent people swept up in the hysteria, including Antoine Lavoisier, the Father of Modern Chemistry.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should we bring back the guillotine? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Lavoisier, Antoine. Elements of Chemistry. Dover Publications, 1984.
Teacher Created Materials. Antoine Lavoisier: Founder of Modern Chemistry: Physical Science. Teacher Created Materials, 2007.
Yount, Lisa. Antoine Lavoisier: Founder of Modern Chemistry. Enslow Pub Inc, 1997.