A Short History Of What Happened During The French Revolution And How These Changes Nearly Destroyed Modern Chemistry - The Comprehensive Minds

A Short History Of What Happened During The French Revolution And How These Changes Nearly Destroyed Modern Chemistry

Known for revolutionizing chemistry and conducting groundbreaking experiments during the Enlightenment Antoine Lavoisier and his wife Maria-Ann are today known as the father and mother of modern chemistry. Antoine also revolutionized french gunpowder, which helped his country win wars and even aided in the American Revolution. But during the bloodiest days of the French Revolution, none of that would help him. Today we're going to take a look at how the father and mother of modern chemistry were utterly destroyed by the French Revolution. 

Pioneering Multiple Scientific Breakthroughs

The French Revolution And How These Changes Nearly Destroyed Modern Chemistry
Photo: Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Most people have heard of Marie and Pierre Curie the scientific couple who among other things discovered radium. But Antoine and Maria-Ann Lavoisier were the OG science power couple. In the 18th century Antoineled, the chemical revolution established the law of conservation of Mass and named several elements including oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. 

Together the Lavoisier's worked to build on Joseph Priestley's groundbreaking research on oxygen and promote a lab-based approach to chemistry. However, the Lavoisier's were also aristocrats and Antoine was a former tax collector which was not a great thing to be during the French Revolution. 

Unfortunately, when the Reign of Terror turned its sights on Antoine his cutting-edge scientific achievements couldn't protect him. During the 1700s most scientists believed in the Phlogiston theory which long story short, supposedly explained why things burn. Antoine Lavoisier disagreed with the concept and argued that the so-called  "dephlogisticated air"  was really what his acquaintance and rival Joseph Priestley had identified as oxygen. 

The Lavoisiers' Most Important Research Focused On Oxygen
Photo: Madame Lavoisier / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The friendly rivalry between Priestley and Lavoisier produced volumes of correspondence detailing their findings. History credits both Priestley and Lavoisier for discovering oxygen though Priestley believed he had found DPH logistic air. It was actually Antoine who identify the gas and gave it the name oxygen, which was derived from the Greek word for the acid maker.  

Experimented With Diamonds To Learn About Carbon

Experimented With Diamonds To Learn About Carbon
Photo: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Antoine Lavoisier is highly renowned for the elements he named, as well as the law of conservation of mass. During the chemical revolution, Antoine argued that elements of set weights comprise the world and he tested that theory in1772 by burning a Diamond

Out of that work well, during the experiment, Antoine placed a Diamond in a sealed jar and focused light on it using an enormous magnifying glass. The Diamond burned and seemed to disappear completely yet Antoine found the weight of the jar and its contents had not changed. He used this result to demonstrate how mass conservation is a law of nature. 

In later tests, Antoine determined that burning Diamond and charcoal produced the same gas, carbon dioxide. The discovery convinced him that both Diamond and charcoal contained the same element which he named carbon.  

They Proved Combustion And Respiration Are Chemically Identical

They Proved Combustion And Respiration Are Chemically Identical
Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-4.0

As if discovering and naming oxygen and carbon weren't enough, the Lavoisier's also spent years of research exploring the nature of respiration and combustion. It paid off. Ultimately, they proved that from a chemical standpoint the two processes were actually identical. 

They did this by designing several tests to measure breathing in the heat given off during respiration. In one experiment, for example, Antoine used his laboratory tools to measure the heat and carbon dioxide emitted from a guinea pig's exhalation. 

He then burned carbon to produce an equal amount of carbon dioxide to prove it created the same amount of heat. This revolutionary research explained why mammals have a body temperature higher than room temperature.  

Antoine Helped The French Army Develop Better Gunpowder

Antoine Helped The French Army Develop Better Gunpowder

Antoine Lavoisier's scientific research was invaluable to the chemistry community. But scientists weren't the only ones to benefit it also helped the French army. In 1775 Antoine joined the royal gunpowder and saltpeter administration, a research group dedicated to augmenting gunpowder. As a commissioner Antoinecreated a laboratory to study gunpowder constituent parts. 

Antoine worked with potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal to enhance gunpowder. And his test revealed a better way to granularly the powder. The project which was initially started by King Louis XVI because he was concerned that France wasn't self-sufficient in the manufacture of gunpowder was such a success that the country soon had excess quantities of gunpowder available for export. 

Interestingly, one of the major beneficiaries of this surplus would be the soldiers in George Washington's army who were busy fighting the American Revolution.  The Lavoisier's were only able to revolutionize chemistry because of their advanced equipment and they only had the equipment because in 1783 Antoine had designated Jean Nicolas Fortin as his instrument maker. 

The couple needed the best tools to conduct precise chemical experiments. And Fortin who also worked with French innovators like Pierre Dulongand Gay-Lusaka was experienced at designing gear for scientists. In his most famous work elements of chemistry, Antoine included detailed drawings showing 170 different pieces of laboratory devices. 

Marie-Ann had drawn each diagram to scale showing the flasks, furnaces, and jars the pair used to uncover new scientific principles. Marie-Ann PaulzePaul was only 13 when she married the 28-year-old Antoine Lavoisier, that seems very young. But then again, it was a very different time if it makes you feel any better, Antoine's biographer Douglas MacKie said that the marriage was a happy one, in part because Marie-Ann became Antoine's most important scientific collaborator. 

According to MacKie, Marie-Ann was possessed of high intelligence. She took a great interest in her husband's scientific work and rapidly equipped herself to share in his labors. MacKie further states that Marie-Ann helped Antoine in the laboratory and Drew sketches of his experiments. 

On top of all that, she made many of the entries in his laboratory notebooks. Marie-Ann also learned English so she could translate and comment on the latest research reports from Britain and engage with scientific contemporaries.  

Antoine Volunteered To Marry Marie-Anne To Protect Her

Antoine Volunteered To Marry Marie-Anne To Protect Her
Photo: Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

If treating her as an intellectual partner and a professional equal isn't enough to ease your mind about the significant age gap, know that Antoine only originally agreed to marry the teenage Marie-Ann so she wouldn't have to marry someone more than three times her age. 

In 1771 the Count d'Amervala middle-aged man threatened to fire Marie-Ann's father from his tax company if he could not marry Marie-Ann. Something that seems like it should be illegal, but at the time, it wasn't. Marie-Ann's father needed a reason to refuse the powerful aristocrat so he asked his associate Antoine to marry Marie-Ann instead. 

Antoine and Marie-Ann wed in 1771 and remained together until Antoine's death during the French Revolution. Given that they were dedicated scientist types the Lavoisier's often spent their days in the laboratory. Antoine was typically the one directing experiments while Marie-Ann managed the schedule and recorded the results. 

Madam Lavoisier wrote that her husband believed any day in the lab was a good one. According to her, it was for him a day of happiness. She described how much her husband loved going to the lab in the mornings to meet with some friends who shared his views and some youngmen proud to be admitted to the honor of collaborating in his experiments. 

Antoine was often at the center of the conversations as his wife recalled, it was there that you could have heard this man with his precise mind, his clear intelligence, his high genius, the loftiness of his philosophical principles illuminating his conversation.  

The French Revolution Halted The Couple's Scientific Work

The French Revolution Halted The Couple's Scientific Work

Antoine Lavoisier's groundbreaking book Elements Of Chemistry debuted in 1789, which Unfortunately was the same year the French Revolution turned his country upside down. The Lavoisier's initially supported the revolution and Antoine worked with a new government to establish the metric system across France. 

But Antoine also acknowledged that the disruption affected his work, and in 1790he wrote that the state of  Public Affairs in France has temporarily retarded the progress of science and distracted scientists from the work that is most precious to them. He didn't know when he wrote that, but being distracted was going to quickly become the least of his concerns. Only a few years later Antoinereceived a death warrant with his name on it. 

For centuries people across Europe hated tax collectors which aren't too hard to believe because who likes a tax collector, even now? But France's financial problems compelled citizens to particularly despise them in the years before the French Revolution. The French tax system protected the elite from taxes and levied most of the burden on the Third Estate, which was comprised of peasants, merchants, and artisans. 

The collection system rested on using tax farmers, and some extorted their districts to keep the excess for themselves. Antoine Lavoisier had once served as a tax collector. And though his wife wasn't one, she was the daughter of one and that certainly didn't help the couple's popularity. 

As the French Revolution grew more radical many people began to view all aristocrats with suspicion. In 1793 at the dawn of the Reign of Terror the revolutionaries disbanded the French Academy of Sciences the most important scientific society in the country. 

Two years earlier, members of the Academy including Antoine Lavoisierhad helped create the metric system for France. But the revolutionaries declared the Academy elitist, talk about ungrateful. In 1794, the revolutionary government declared Antoine a traitor. He faced accusations of conspiring with foreign scientists and sending money to France's enemies. The government issued his death warrant.  

All Of Antoine's Tax-Collecting Colleagues Went To The Guillotine

All Of Antoine's Tax-Collecting Colleagues Went To The Guillotine

It probably didn't make him feel any better about being executed, but the Reign of Terror didn't single out Antoine Lavoisier. In fact, the government arrested anyone and everyone who participated in the tax-collecting group, including Marie-Ann's father. On May 8th, 1794 a revolutionary tribunal convicted Antoine of conspiracy against the people of France. 

The revolutionaries did not wait long to carry out the death sentence. Hours later Antoine found himself staring down the National razor. He was 50 years old when he died. They also executed Marie-Ann's father that day, it was a rough day all around. After his execution, Antoine Lavoisier was mourned by scientists around the world. 

To drive home how irreplaceable Antoine was mathematician Joseph-Louis Leograndesaid of the execution, it took them only an instant to cut off that head, and hundreds of years may not produce another like it. Marie-Ann continued to promote her husband's work. 

She published his papers in 1795 and after the Reign of Terror was over, she hosted a scientific salon in Paris. She even went on to marry another scientist Benjamin Thompson. Just a year after executing Antoine, the French government voided the trial and declared the scientist innocent. 

Antoine was only one of the thousands who died during theFrench Revolution but his story is one of the most tragic. So what do you think? How important were the Lavoisier's to chemistry let us know in the comments below. 


  1. I think you mean the lady published her husband's papers in 1795 - not 1885.

    1. Sorry its 1795 not 1885, I have Updated it and thanks for your great feedback


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