Trial and Execution of Antoine Lavoisier, May 8, 1794

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today is the anniversary of French scientist Antoine Lavoisier’s trial and execution by guillotine on May 8, 1794. Lavoisier is famous for his contributions to chemistry. He made many invaluable accomplishments: the naming of oxygen; analysis of the role of this element in combustion and respiration (instead of “phlogiston”); discovery of the conservation of matter in chemical reactions; and quantitative treatment of organic substances. He even worked on solar energy.

Special Collections at Lehigh University has a first edition of his of “Elementary Treatise on Chemistry” ¹, published in 1789, the year used when the French Revolution when described as the “Revolution of 1789”.   In his study of Lavoisier, Jean-Pierre Poirier², describes the book as “the crowning achievement of his undertaking” (192). Included in this wide-ranging work are “essential points of the new chemistry”; “the first modern list of the chemical elements”; and ”instruments and experimental methods of new chemistry”.  The work contains thirteen plates engraved by Madame Lavoisier. Some of these plates are depicted here.(193-195)

As Poirier notes, Lavoisier was only one of several scientists executed in the French Revolution (385-86).  Eventually, the political revolution ate its own; two of its major figures, Danton and Robespierre, were buried in the same area of mass graves as Lavoisier (382). On one account, “During the Reign of Terror, at least 300,000 suspects were arrested; 17,000 were officially executed, and perhaps 10,000 died in prison or without trial.”3

Lavoisier’s greatest contribution was to a different sort of revolution, one of the mind. Poirier quotes I. Bernard Cohen: “the chemical revolution has a primary place among revolutions in science in that it is the first generally recognized major one to have been called a revolution by its chief author” (197).

The Linderman Library exhibit “Daring Knowledge: Diderot’s Encyclopédie“, features more illustrations and information about 18th century chemistry. While the science of the Encyclopédie predates Lavoisier’s mature findings, it provides a snapshot of how chemistry and scientific study were understood in his era.





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