• Weird History

How The 'Father And Mother' Of Modern Chemistry Were Utterly Destroyed By The French Revolution

The Reign of Terror destroyed thousands of lives, but in the scientific community, Antoine Lavoisier's death was arguably the most devastating. Known for revolutionizing chemistry and conducting groundbreaking experiments during the Enlightenment, Lavoisier's aristocratic status eventually condemned him. Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Anne, worked together as the father and mother of modern chemistry, designing and carrying out experiments. Together, they built an international reputation.

Like most 18th-century scientists, the Lavoisiers were aristocrats. But unlike aristocrats ridiculed for their extravagant tastes, the Lavoisiers spent their money on things like diamonds for scientific experiments. Antoine also revolutionized French gunpowder, helping his country win wars. But during the bloodiest days of the French Revolution, high status meant the opposite of protection.

When the guillotine took off Antoine's head, a famous mathematician declared, "It took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it."

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  • Photo: Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Antoine Helped The French Army Develop Better Gunpowder

    Antoine Lavoisier's scientific research 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, Antoine created a laboratory to study gunpowder's constituent parts.

    Antoine worked with potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal to enhance gunpowder, and his tests revealed a better way to granulate the powder.

  • Photo: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Lavoisiers Used State-Of-The-Art Equipment

    The Lavoisiers were able to revolutionize chemistry because of their advanced equipment. In 1783, Antoine designated Nicolas Fortin as his instrument maker; they needed the best tools to conduct precise chemical experiments. As one of the first modern quantitative chemists, Antoine needed specific measurements. He achieved his goals by measuring the weight of gas in delicate glass balloons.

    In his most famous work, Elements of Chemistry, Antoine included detailed drawings showing 170 different pieces of laboratory devices; Marie-Anne had drawn each diagram to scale, showing the flasks, furnaces, and jars the pair used to uncover new scientific principles.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Lavoisiers Were A Team At A Time When Science Only Recognized Men's Achievements

    Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze was only 13 when she married the 28-year-old Antoine Lavoisier. But Antoine's biographer, Douglass McKie, said, "The marriage was a happy one." In part, this is because Marie-Anne became Antoine's most important scientific collaborator. McKie explained:

    Mme Lavoisier was possessed of a high intelligence; she took a great interest in her husband's scientific work and rapidly equipped herself to share in his labors. Later, she helped him in the laboratory and drew sketches of his experiments. She made many of the entries in his laboratory notebooks.

    Marie-Anne also learned English so she could translate and comment on the latest research reports from Britain and engage with scientific contemporaries.

  • Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-4.0

    Antoine Volunteered To Marry Marie-Anne To Protect Her From An Aristocrat

    Antoine Lavoisier agreed to marry the teenage Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze so she wouldn't have to marry someone more than three times her age. In 1771, the Count d'Amerval, a middle-aged man, threatened to fire Marie-Anne's father from his tax company if he could not marry Marie-Anne. Marie-Anne's father needed a reason to refuse the powerful aristocrat; he asked his associate, Antoine, to marry Marie-Anne instead.

    Antoine and Marie-Anne wed in 1771 and remained together until Antoine's death during the French Revolution.