Historians view Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier as the father of modern chemistry. Lavoisier was also an eminent physiologist.
Lavoisier was born into a wealthy family on 26th August 1743. He inherited a large family fortune at the age of five when his mother died.
Lavoisier was educated at the respected Collège Mazarin where he specialised in mathematics, botany, astronomy and chemistry. Lavoisier was highly influenced by Etienne Condillac and by the French Enlightenment movement in general. He gained a reputation for ability and was elected to the French Academy of Science in 1768 aged just 25.
Lavoisier’s work covered geology, street lighting and chemistry where he studied the impact of rusting.
He spent a great deal of his time studying the physiology of respiration. Lavoisier’s work was greatly helped by the fact that the gases involved in respiration had already been identified and categorised by others. Joseph Black had isolated carbon dioxide in 1757; in 1766 Henry Cavendish had isolated hydrogen while in 1772, Daniel Rutherford had isolated nitrogen. In the same years as Rutherford’s discovery, Joseph Priestly had isolated oxygen. But it was Lavoisier who discovered the true nature of respiration when he found that it was a process whereby oxygen is taken up by blood in the lungs.
He showed that respiration was a process of combustion, with the utilisation of oxygen and the production of carbon dioxide. Lavoisier used his findings to push for better public health in cities and towns. He based his arguments around his belief that people who lived in a crowded conurbation needed a certain amount of good clean air to live a decent life. Ironically, his drive to help the poor in the cities came at a time of upheaval in France – the French Revolution. For anyone with an aristocratic background, the times became very dangerous.
Lavoisier was arrested during the French Revolution and accused of selling watered-down tobacco. However, it was thought that his real crime was to be an investor in a private tax collection company (Ferme Générale). The company had not been popular with the general public in France as it made its profits from the collection of taxes. This put him in a very difficult position during the Revolution. His work as a scientist was brushed aside and he was primarily tried as an ‘enemy of the people’ – using his position to exploit those who were the easiest to exploit. It did not help Lavoisier’s cause that he also sat on a number of aristocratic committees that were deemed to have been set up to maintain their standard of living at the expense of the poor.
Lavoisier’s main protagonist was Jean-Paul Marat, a leading figure in the so-called Reign of Terror. In previous years, Lavoisier had publicly belittled an invention of Marat's and Lavoisier’s arrest gave Marat the opportunity he needed for revenge. It is probable that once arrested Lavoisier had little chance of avoiding the guillotine. Marat portrayed him as a man who as an investor in the Ferme Générale had bled white the poor. Appeals for his life were ignored. A revolutionary judge stated that Revolutionary France had no need for scientists.
Antoine Lavoisier was executed by guillotine on May 8th 1794.
A post-revolutionary French government exonerated him.
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