The father of…

For a change today’s birthday boy is not an obscure mathematician or astronomer but a famous chemist, indeed the very ‘father of chemistry’ or if you prefer the ‘founder of modern chemistry’ Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier who was born on the 26th August 1743.


Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife by Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1788 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now regular readers of this blog will already have guessed that I am about to take umbrage at the terms ‘father of chemistry’ and ‘founder of modern chemistry’ that are almost always applied to Lavoisier as soon as his name is mentioned. Although it cannot be denied that he played a significant role in the history of the subject the use of such terms give him more credit than he is due and tend to obscure those researchers on whose work his reputation was built in a similar way to the exaggerated adulation of Galileo in the history of physics.

The history of chemistry is long and complex and this is not the place to give a detailed analysis but a brief outline helps to put Lavoisier’s role somewhat into perspective. That which we call chemistry has its roots in two separate but intertwined streams that go back into the proverbial mist of time, industrial chemistry and alchemy. There is a tendency to see industrial chemistry as a product of the nineteenth century but in fact it is on a practical level one of the oldest scientific activities of all. The potters who developed ceramic glazes, the tanners who developed methods of curing animal hides, the metallurgists who learnt to turn ores into metals and the dyers who produced coloured cloths were all practical industrial chemists who learnt to manipulate and transform chemical substances over thousands of years passing this information on from generation to generation and steadily increasing it. Alchemist took a slightly different approach to the material world and everybody knows about their attempts to transmute metals and discover the secret of eternal life but underlying these aims is a philosophical theory of the material substances of the world that led alchemists to develop most of the equipment and methodologies necessary to carry out chemical analysis. After many centuries of existence these two activities expanded almost exponentially in the 16th and 17th centuries with then ‘modern’ alchemists such as Paracelsus, Libavius and van Helmont combining the ancient traditions with the new scientific spirit of the age. Robert Boyle who is also called the ‘father of chemistry’ gave a sceptical analysis of their efforts in his notorious The Sceptical Chymist. More importantly this new approach to chemistry became intertwined with physics through the investigations into air made possible by von Guericke’s invention of the air pump. This invention combined with some of van Helmont’s work, it was he who gave us the word gas, led researchers to investigate the properties first of air and as they then began to realise the presence of more than one invisible substances the properties of the different types of air.

It is at this point, we are now at the beginning of the 18th century, that various chemists produced the work that made it possible for Lavoisier to develop the synthesis for which he earns his exaggerated honorary titles. Joseph Black in Edinburgh discovered and investigated the properties of carbon dioxide; his student Daniel Rutherford did the same for nitrogen. Henry Cavendish discovered hydrogen and like James Watt, another protégé of Black’s, demonstrated that hydrogen and oxygen combine to produce water. Cavendish also determined that air consists of one part oxygen and four parts nitrogen and his determination was even accurate enough to show that there was something else that made up 1/120 part of the air, inert gases then unknown. Joseph Priestley, of whom I have written before, discovered various gases including nitric oxide, ammonia and most famously oxygen. All of this work was carried out at a high scientific level and communicated to the then scientific community that included Lavoisier. Lavoisier was able to synthesise the work of his predecessors and to develop a new fundamental theory of chemistry out of their results. A theory that was then further developed and confirmed by Lavoisier himself a number of his contemporaries.

The use of such meaningless titles such as ‘father of this or that’ tend to separate and isolate the individual so named from the mainstream of scientific evolution producing a false (Kuhnian!) impression of the progress of science and I think historian of science have an obligation to put such ‘heroes of science’ back into the scientific community where they belong.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

18 responses to “The father of…

  1. John S. Wilkins

    In short, nobody begins in a vacuum. A simple point, but one that folk histories tend to overlook…

  2. Peter R.

    Good summary, but one small nit to pick: the air pump didn’t really have a lot to do with the development of chemistry, except for determining that air is necessary for combustion. Chemists made much more productive use of the pneumatic trough, invented by Stephen Hales, who collected various airs given off in combustion and other processes, and argued that the air was in fact a chemical species in a different state.

    • I considered including Hales and his pneumatic trough so thanks for the addition. Viewed historically the work of John Mayow, who first speculated that respiration is combustion, and Hales work on the affect of air on plant growth follow directly from and were inspired by Boyle’s and Hooke’s experiment with the air pump, so I remain by my claim!

      • The air pump and the experiments carried out with it, in particular those of Boyle and Hooke, made researchers aware that air is a material substance that can be investigated physically and chemically. Those investigations led to the awareness that there are different sorts of air and led to the investigations of the pneumatic chemists. That’s my take on the development!

  3. Nicely done Thony. I remember all of the wrong things about Lavoisier: that he was executed, that his widow married Count Rumford, and that they grew to hate each other so much that she poured boiling water on his rose bushes. Now my brain has other things to hold on to.

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  5. Rob

    Call me a nit-picker, but this post would be much improved by a check for mechanical errors and missing words. Crucial little words like “and.” Number disagreements like “Alchemist took.” There’s no law against fixing these kinds of errors after you first publish.

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  8. Yes, or as Liebig stated in his third Faimiliar Letter on Chemistry: “He discovered no new body, no new property, no natural phenomenon previously unknown; but all the facts established by him were the necessary consequences of the labours of those who preceded him.”

    I read this post and subsequently browsed the web a little on what I knew about Lavoisier. In France, he is very well known for a quote: “Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme” (nothing gets lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed). Well, even this very modern sounding sentence is in fact a reformulation of Anaxagoras’, who stated this law more than 2000 years earlier.

    • It is a real pleasure to have intelligent, interested, well informed readers who give as well as taking. The Liebig quote is great. Thank you. The Arabic scholar al-Tusi also stated the principle of conservation of matter long before Lavoisier.

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