Trial and Execution of Antoine Lavoisier, May 8, 1794

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436106

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.

References

1: https://asa.lib.lehigh.edu/Record/258721

2: https://asa.lib.lehigh.edu/Record/493513

3: https://www.britannica.com/event/Reign-of-Terror

John James Audubon

Today, April 26th, is the birthday of ornithologist, artist and naturalist John James Audubon. Born an illegitimate child to his French plantation owning Father and Creole mother on the island of what is now considered Haiti, John James Audubon was an unlikely candidate to become one of the most prominent naturalists of his era.

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.” Self-portrait. From “Audubon’s America” by Donald Culross Peattie.

For the first half of his life there was arguably nothing to keep him grounded, quite literally. Upon the untimely death of his servant mother in Saint-Dominigue, he was shipped back to France and adopted by the wife of his father. Quickly, he developed a fascination with the natural world that followed him for the rest of his life. It was in France that he was versed in the knowledge and privileges of a good merchant’s son: art, music, science, history. He was also given ample time to explore the untamed green around him, a separate world that became his source of solitude, healing, wonder, awe and inspiration.

He once said, “In my deepest troubles, I frequently would wrench myself from the persons around me and retire to some secluded part of our noble forests.”

Plate 347: The Smew. Courtesy of audubon.org

During the surge of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, Audubon, then 18 years old, was relocated again to one of his father’s estates in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. In time he honed his artistic talents and continued to observe nature, particularly birds. In 1824 he published one of the most influential bird books in history titled “Birds of America.” Subscribers to Audubon’s publications included the likes of King George IV and 7th U.S. President, Andrew Jackson.

 

Turning the pages of Lehigh’s “Birds of America.”

The book itself is a 39.5″ x 29.5″ cover to cover collection of life-size and incredibly detailed paintings of various bird species. The birds are depicted in their natural environment as Audubon might have observed them. Lehigh University is in possession of one of only 120 believed complete collections still in existence. It is on display year-round in the reading room of Linderman Library. View a complete digital exhibit about ornithology and Audubon through Lehigh Special Collections’ Omeka page: Home to Roost: Ornithological Collections at Lehigh University.

The book on display in Linderman Library.

Aptly, today is also National Audubon Day, a day sponsored by the National Audubon Society to commemorate his contributions to the field of ornithology. Use #NationalAudubonDay or #AudubonDay to tag your best bird photos on social media.