Lavoisier & French Revolution

Antoine Lavoisier (26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794), a French nobleman and chemist, has been widely considered as the “father of modern chemistry”.

Lavoisier was central to the 18th-century chemical revolution, which transited from alchemy to modern chemistry. Why Lavoisier was considered as the father of modern chemistry?

Antoine Lavoisier determined that oxygen was a key substance in combustion and respiration. He discovered that water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, sulfur is an element, and named the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen; He established the foundation of chemistry from a qualitative science into a quantitative one by discovering that matter retains its mass even when it changes forms.

Lavoisier also worked for clean drinking water toward benefiting the public, such as clean drinking water and air quality. He had a share in the General Farm, an enterprise that collected taxes for the government. His fortunes allowed him to work on science full-time and live comfortably.

During the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, on 24 November 1793, the arrest of all the former tax farmers was ordered. Antoine Lavoisier was guillotined on May 8, 1794 at age of 50. He was executed with his father-in-law and 26 other General Farm members.

Lagrange expressed Lavoisier’s importance to science, “Il ne leur a fallu qu’un moment pour faire tomber cette tête, et cent années peut-être ne suffiront pas pour en reproduire une semblable.” (“It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.”)

During the pandemic time of 2020, I enrolled some online learning activities from local library and Airbnb. Thierry’s French Revolution is excellent presentation with his extensive French history knowledge and storytelling. There are the links of his online French history walks.

I am interested in the French Revolution, also because I personally knew people who suffered or even lost their lives during the culture revolution associated with reign of terror in other country. French Revolution changed the course of Europe forever. The terror died with Robespierre, but the right of man and the democracy outlived passing the revolution.

When I read Madison Bell’s book “Lavoisier in the year one”, I put my heart into it. At the end of book, Bell mentioned that the instruments of Lavoisier’s laboratory are on display at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. As a chemist myself, I truly hope I will see these instruments when I visit Paris again!

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