Antoine Lavoisier

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Antoine Lavoisier : biography

26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794

This continuous slow combustion, which they supposed took place in the lungs, enabled the living animal to maintain its body temperature above that of its surroundings, thus accounting for the puzzling phenomenon of animal heat. Lavoisier continued these respiration experiments in 1789-1790 in cooperation with Armand Seguin. They designed an ambitious set of experiments to study the whole process of body metabolism and respiration using Seguin as a human guinea pig in the experiments. Their work was only partially completed and published because of the disruption of the Revolution; but Lavoisier’s pioneering work in this field served to inspire similar research on physiological processes for generations to come.

Final days and execution

As the French Revolution gained momentum from 1789 on, Lavoisier’s world inexorably collapsed around him. Attacks mounted on the deeply unpopular Ferme Générale, and it was eventually suppressed in 1791. In 1792 Lavoisier was forced to resign from his post on the Gunpowder Commission and to move from his house and laboratory at the Royal Arsenal. On August 8, 1793, all the learned societies, including the Academy of Sciences, were suppressed.

It is difficult to assess Lavoisier’s own attitude to the political turmoil. Like so many intellectual liberals, he felt that the Ancien Régime could be reformed from the inside if only reason and moderation prevailed. Characteristically, one of his last major works was a proposal to the National Convention for the reform of French education. He tried to remain aloof from the political cockpit, no doubt fearful and uncomprehending of the violence he saw therein. However, on Nov. 24, 1793, the arrest of all the former tax gatherers was ordered. He was branded a traitor by the Convention under Maximilien de Robespierre during the Reign of Terror, in 1794. He had also intervened on behalf of a number of foreign-born scientists including mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, granting them exception to a mandate stripping all foreigners of possessions and freedom. Lavoisier was tried, convicted, and guillotined on 8 May 1794 in Paris, at the age of 50.

Lavoisier and the other former tax gatherers were formally brought to trial on May 8, 1794. According to a (probably apocryphal) story, the appeal to spare his life so that he could continue his experiments was cut short by the judge: "La République n’a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes ; le cours de la justice ne peut être suspendu." ("The Republic needs neither scientists nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed.") Commenting on this quotation, Denis Duveen, an English expert on Lavoiser and a collector of his works, wrote that "it is pretty certain that it was never uttered". For Duveen’s evidence, see the following: . Lavoisier was convicted with summary justice of having plundered the people and the treasury of France, of having adulterated the nation’s tobacco with water, and of having supplied the enemies of France with huge sums of money from the national treasury. Lavoisier, along with 27 of his former colleagues, was guillotined on the same day. Lavoisier’s importance to science was expressed by Joseph Louis Lagrange who lamented the beheading by saying: "Cela leur a pris seulement un instant pour lui couper la tête, mais la France pourrait ne pas en produire une autre pareille en un siècle." ("It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century.")

Post-mortem

A year and a half after his death, Lavoisier was exonerated by the French government. When his private belongings were delivered to his widow, a brief note was included, reading "To the widow of Lavoisier, who was falsely convicted".

About a century after his death, a statue of Lavoisier was erected in Paris. It was later discovered that the sculptor had not actually copied Lavoisier’s head for the statue, but used a spare head of the Marquis de Condorcet, the Secretary of the Academy of Sciences during Lavoisier’s last years. Lack of money prevented alterations from being made. The statue was melted down during the Second World War and has not since been replaced. However, one of the main "lycées" (high schools) in Paris and a street in the 8th arrondissement are named after Lavoisier, and statues of him are found on the Hôtel de Ville (photograph, left) and on the façade of the Cour Napoléon of the Louvre.

Lavoisier is listed among eminent Roman Catholic scientists (see List of Roman Catholic cleric-scientists), and as such he defended his faith against those who attempted to use science to attack it. Louis Edouard Grimaux, author of the standard French biography of Lavoisier, and the first biographer to obtain access to Lavoisier’s papers, writes the following: Raised in a pious family which had given many priests to the Church, he had held to his beliefs. To Edward King, an English author who had sent him a controversial work, he wrote, "You have done a noble thing in upholding revelation and the authenticity of the Holy Scripture, and it is remarkable that you are using for the defense precisely the same weapons which were once used for the attack".Grimaux, Edouard. Lavoisier 1743-1794. (Paris, 1888; 2nd ed., 1896; 3rd ed., 1899), page 53.