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Antoine Lavoisier

Antoine Lavoisier Photo

Antoine Lavoisier, wildly known as the ‘father of modern chemistry’ was a French nobleman. He was born on 26th August 1743 to a privileged family in Paris, France. Antoine was only 5 when his mother, Émilie Punctis, died, leaving him a huge amount of fortune. In 1754, when he was 11 years of age, he began attending Collège des Quatre-Nations, University of Paris. In the 7 years that he spent at the campus, Antoine studied many subjects, including chemistry, botany, astronomy, and mathematics. For further studies, he enrolled into the school of law and was awarded a bachelor’s degree in 1763 and a licentiate in 1764. He received his law degree, and was admitted to the bar, but rather than practice law, he pursued his quest for scientific knowledge.

In 1764, Antoine published his first chemical writings, which he read to the French Academy of sciences. In 1768, he gained admission into the most prestigious scientific society, The Academy of Sciences. During the same time, he purchased an interest in a financial enterprise known as the Ferme générale. This was a tax farming financial company which allowed the taxpayers to lend money to the government, which was later compensated through tax collections. In 1771, after three years of working, Antoine married Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, the 13-year-old daughter of a notable member of the farm. She provided great support and helped translate English documents for Antoine. She was a remarkable assistant and would draw engravings for all the experiments that were conducted in the laboratory. She also campaigned for the acceptance of the new theories that Antoine would present.

Antoine is most famous for his contributions to chemistry. He worked upon the idea of combustion for years and observed that phosphorus and sulfur when burned in the presence of air, gain mass. He thoroughly studied the work of other scientists such as Joseph Black and came to a conclusion that when metals changed into powders, a weight gain was observed. In 1774, when Priestley visited Paris, he told Antoine about the gas produced when he decomposed the red calx of mercury. Priestley believed what he was dealing with was an especially pure form of air. He called it dephlogisticated air, as he thought it was deprived of its normal phlogiston content. Antoine did not believe in the existence of phlogiston and, therefore, continued researching and experimenting. In 1779, he coined the name for Oxygen, the gas which was produced in Priestley’s experiments and which constituted 20 percent of the air. During his investigations, Antoine observed that the mass of a fixed container remained the same over the course of a chemical reaction and so came up with the law of conservation of mass. He also severed on the committee that constructed the metric system. He discovered hydrogen, found out that sulfur was an element while water was a compound.

Amongst his other work, he devised a method to ensure that only pure tobacco was sold to retailers without any water or ash mixed with it. Lavoisier urged for the establishment of a Royal Commission on Agriculture. He then served as its Secretary and spent considerable sums of his own money in order to improve the agricultural yields. In 1775, he was made one of four commissioners of gunpowder appointed to replace a private company which weren’t successful in providing France with its munitions requirements. Under his command, the quality and quantity of gunpowder greatly improved and he was given a home and a laboratory in the royal arsenal.  Here he lived and worked between 1775 and 1792.

At the height of the French Revolution, he was charged with tax fraud and selling adulterated tobacco, and was guillotined on 8 May 1794 in Paris, at the age of 50.

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