Lavoisier | Antoine Laurent | 1743-1794 | French chemist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was born in 1743. He studied mathematics and astronomy with Nicolas de Lacaille (1713-1762), chemistry with Guillaume-François Rouelle (1703-1770) and botany with Bernard de Jussieu (1699-1777) at the Collège Mazarin. From 1763-1767 he studied geology under Jean Etienne Guettard (1715-1786). He was one of the best known French scientists and an important government official. His theories of combustion, and his development of a new system of chemical nomenclature and the first modern textbook of chemistry led to his being known as the father of modern chemistry. As a scientist, Lavoisier demonstrated the nature of combustion, disproving the phlogiston theory. He also proposed the name "oxygen" for the substance previously known as "dephilogisticated air," and laid the framework for understanding chemical reactions as combinations of elements to form new materials.

As a government official, Lavoisier was successful in creating agricultural reform, serving as a tax collection official, and overseeing the government's manufacture of gunpowder. In 1787 Irenee du Pont was apprenticed as a bookkeeper to Lavoisier, then Commissioner of Powders. Over the three years he was with Lavoisier at the Royal Arsenal, Irenee was exposed to the art of gunpowder making. Lavoisier, who was responsible for changing French gunpowder from the very worst to the very best in the world, then offered the young Irenee a job at the powder factory outside of Paris. In 1765 he wrote and published a paper on how to improve the street lighting in Paris. For this and some works on agriculture, he was elected into the Royal Academy of Science in 1768. Also in this year, he joined the Farmer's General, a private company that collected taxes and tariffs for the government. In 1775, Lavoisier was appointed to the National Gunpowder Commission. He then moved to the Arsenal of Paris where he created a superb laboratory for his growing experimentation. In large part, he was able to afford his experiments and such a laboratory because of his inherited wealth. His new home quickly became a gathering place for scientists and freethinkers. Lavoisier was politically liberal and shared many of the ideas of the philosophers. He was deeply persuaded of the need for social reform in France. Because of this, he played an active part in the events preceeding the French Revolution. He served on a committee concerned with the social conditions of France and proposed tax reforms and new economic strategies. He also served on a committee that explored hospitals and prisons of Paris and then recommended remedies for their horrible state. During the revolution, he published a report on the state of France's finances. When the Estate's General reconvened in 1789, he became an alternate deputy and drew up a code of instructions for the other deputies to follow. Soon after the revolution began, Jean-Paul Marat and other radical journalists began to slander Lavoisier for being a member of the Farmer's General. On May 8th, 1794, all of the Farmer's General were arrested and thrown in prison. In a trial that lasted less than a day, they were all convicted and sentenced to execution.


Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Experiments Upon Magnesia Alba, Quicklime and Some Other Alcaline Subctances. Essays and Observations Physical and Literary, 2, ( 1756)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1767: Appointed Fellow, Royal College of Physicians

1788: Appointed President, Royal College of Physicians


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol ii, (United States of America, Scribner's, 1972)

Peter McIntyre, The University Portraits: Joseph Black, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1957)

Williams, Trevor I, A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, (London, A and C Black, 1969)

Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh, (London, Longhams, Green & Co, 1884)