Antoine Lavoisier Biography
LAVOISIER, Antoine Laurent (1743–94). The founder of modern chemistry. He was born in Paris and was educated at the Collège Mazarin. He showed great aptitude for the mathematical and physical sciences, studying mathematics under Abbé Lacaille, botany under Jussieu, and chemistry under Rouelle. He then traveled through France with Guettard, who was at the time engaged in important geological work. As early as 1768 Lavoisier became a member of the Academy of Sciences, and in the following year he obtained a post as farmer-general of the revenue, by which he was enabled to devote most of his time to research work. Between 1772 and the year of his death Lavoisier worked out the principles forming the cornerstone of modern chemistry and during this time held several important positions. In 1776 he was made director of powder works and introduced valuable improvements in the manufacture of gunpowder. In 1778 he was appointed one of the trustees of the Bank of Discount. In 1790, as a member of the Commission of Weights and Measures, he was engaged in preparing the decimal system. In 1791 he was commissary of the treasury and published an interesting paper on the economic condition of France. The farmers-general of the revenue were men of eminent social position and considerable wealth, and in the Reign of Terror their wealth became a source of great danger to them. In 1794 Dupin, one of the members of the Convention, accused them of being enemies of their country; Fouquier-Tinville presented the accusation before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and the 27 farmers-general were condemned to die. In vain had one of Lavoisier's friends endeavored to produce an impression on the Tribunal by describing his scientific achievements. The answer was, "We need no more scientists in France."
At the very foundation of all chemical thought is the law of the conservation of mass. Lavoisier, although not the first to divine that matter is everlasting, was the first to understand that that important truth must be established inductively by the use of the balance. By a series of quantitative experiments Lavoisier proved that, whatever the change in kind, the total amount remains the same; and as all relations of quantity are mathematical relations, Lavoisier saw that every chemical change could be expressed by an equation showing that the sum of the masses of the reacting substances is equal to the sum of the masses of the resulting products. When iron, mercury, tin, and other metals were exposed to the action of the air, their weight increased. The resulting earths contained, besides the matter of the metals, other matter and could naturally be split up again into their constituents; they were therefore complex, not simple substances. The quantitative method of Lavoisier thus threw light on the nature of various substances and led to a clear definition of the idea of chemical elements. Lavoisier also advanced a general theory of the formation of chemical compounds. According, to this theory all compounds have a binary constitution. A binary compound of the first order is one made up of two elements. A binary compound of the second order is formed by the union of two binary compounds of the first order. The acids formed by the union of sulphur, nitrogen, phosphorus, and similar substances with oxygen are binary compounds of the first order. Acids are neutralized by bases with formation of salts; therefore salts are binary compounds of the second order. In subsequent times the binary theory proved inadequate and had to be abandoned. It had not lived, however, without giving birth to a series of important results. Since bases were classed by it as compounds of oxygen with metals, chemists were led to search for methods of isolating the latter by decomposing the bases. Thus came the discovery of the alkali and the alkaline earth metals by Davy and the isolation of aluminium by Wöhler, the importance of which for both science and the industries is inestimable. Another important work, in the perfection of which Lavoisier took an active part, must be mentioned here. Little progress could be made in chemical thought without the aid of a system of names which might constantly remind of the composition and properties of compounds. In conjunction with Berthollet, Four-croy, and Guyton de Morveau, at the instance of the last named, Lavoisier devised a system of rational nomenclature, which is in its main features still used in the chemistry of to-day.
All of his ideas were based on observations which had already been made by others. It is a sad but well-established fact that he often published such observations as his own. But the shadow of his petty scientific plagiarism dwindles into nothing in the light of the brilliant achievements which were indisputably his.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XIII (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 640-641.