Acknowledging Madame Lavoisier

Portrait of the Lavoisiers by Jacques-Louis David. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For years, this painting was listed simply as Portrait of M. Lavoisier in the Metropolitan Museum of Art files, neglecting the fact that the painter Jacques-Louis David placed Mme Lavoisier gloriously in the center of the canvas, staring directly at the viewer.

The omission might have been due to the fact that Antoine Lavoisier is an 18th century scientific superstar. Before getting beheaded in the French Revolution, he was the first to correctly explain the chemistry behind burning, rusting and respiration. He also studied infectious disease in urban zones, named the element oxygen and helped develop the metric system.

Meanwhile, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier’s fascinating life and contributions to science have often been neglected.* This insult may be remedied (partially) by a panel discussion to be held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York this Sunday between two Nobel Laureates, Roald Hoffmann and Harold Varmus, and Kathryn Calley Galitz, a scholar of French art.

One of Mme Lavoisier's drawings of the lab, which includes herself on the far right. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Some teasers: Married at age 13 to the 28-year-old Antoine, Marie-Anne immediately began studying English and chemistry so that she could translate texts from British scientists for her husband, who did not speak the language.

Marie-Anne proceeded to make drawings of the experimental set-up for many of Antoine’s important experiments so that other researchers could emulate them. She also illustrated the first chemistry textbook, the famous Traité Élémentaire de Chimie for which she got no credit. “In my opinion, [Mary-Anne] played an essential role in their chemical research on respiration, and other work in his chemical laboratory,” says Hoffmann. “She drew up the list of experiments to be done, and as you can see from her drawings, recorded the experimental findings.”

After Antoine was beheaded, Marie-Anne spend 65 days in jail. Eventually she married a man called Count Rumford. The unhappy second marriage is perhaps exemplified by her pouring of boiling water on his flowers. As Hoffmann puts it: “There is no biography of Mme Lavoisier. I think she deserves an opera.”

*Hoffmann and Carl Djerassi (inventor of the birth control pill) wrote a play together called Oxygen, which features both Lavoisiers. Hoffmann also wrote a piece about Marie-Anne in American Scientist in 2002. In addition, a small chapter is also devoted to her in European Women of Chemistry, which was published this year by Wiley.

Author: Sarah Everts

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  1. Count Rumford (Benjamin Thompson) was of course one of the founders of thermodynamics, the man who proposed the concept of the mechanical equivalent of heat. But Mme Lavoisier was a remarkable woman, and probably the only one I know who married two scientists who were among the most important in history.

  2. Thanks for giving some props to Count Rumford. He was definitely an interesting character too. Besides being a scientist he also fought for the Loyalist army during the American Revolution. Living in Germany, I take particular pleasure in the fact he founded the Englischer Garten in Munich, which is my favorite place in that city to while away an afternoon… Although some choose to go surfing in the Englischer Garten instead:

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