The French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, b. Aug. 26, 1743, d. May 8, 1794, was the founder of modern chemistry. Although he discovered no new substances and devised few new preparations, he described his experiments and synthesized chemical knowledge in his revolutionary textbook Elements of Chemistry (1789; Eng. trans., 1790). In this textbook he presented a new system of chemistry that was based on an essentially modern concept of chemical elements and that made extensive use of the conservation of mass in chemical reactions. Formerly, chemical theory had been based on either three or four elements, and negative mass was considered a possibility by some chemists.

Lavoisier demonstrated experimentally that oxygen gas in the air is involved in combustion, calcination (rusting), and respiration, thus disproving Georg Stahl's phlogiston theory. The basic principles of the new nomenclature, devised in collaboration with Claude Louis Berthollet, Antoine de Fourcroy, and Guyton de Morveau, are still used. Among Lavoisier's major mistakes were the exaggerated importance he ascribed to the role of oxygen in acids and the inclusion of a weightless "heat substance" in his list of chemical elements.

Lavoisier's interest in science was developed during his education (1754-61) at the College Mazarin, where he studied mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and botany, and during a period (1761-64) of legal studies (a family tradition), when he listened to lectures on geology by Jean Etienne Guettard (1715-86) and on chemistry by Guillaume Francois Rouelle (1703-70), both members of the Academie Royale des Sciences. Lavoisier then worked for Guettard for 3 years, collecting details for a geologic map of France and participating in a geological survey (1767) of Alsace and Lorraine. His first paper (1764) on chemistry dealt with the properties of gypsum and the settling of plaster of paris. Another early essay, on the problem of lighting the streets of cities and large towns, was awarded a gold medal by the king of France.

Lavoisier was elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1768, the same year that he entered the Ferme Generale, a private firm that collected certain taxes for the government. He served (1775-91) on the Royal Gunpowder Administration and became a director of the Discount Bank and an administrator of the national treasury. During the period of the French Revolution Lavoisier served as an alternate deputy for the nobility--he had inherited a purchased title from his father in 1775--at the meeting of the Estates General; published reports on the state of French finances and on French agricultural resources; drafted with others a scheme for reforming the French educational system; and participated with other Academy members in establishing the metric system of weights and measures. Nevertheless, Lavoisier, a moderate constitutionalist, was subjected to attacks by radicals, such as Jean Paul Marat, and his involvement with the unpopular Ferme Generale led to his execution by guillotine during the Reign of Terror.

Ralph Gable


Bibliography: Grey, V., The Chemist Who Lost His Head (1982); Grimaux, E., Lavoisier (1981); Guerlac, Henry, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier: Chemist and Revolutionary (1975) and Lavoisier: The Crucial Year (1961); Holmes, Frederic L., Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life (1985).

Last modified on: Friday, October 17, 1997.