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. 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.