Today, meet Marie Lavoisier. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
When scientist Antoine Lavoisier was beheaded during the French
Revolution, he left behind a widow whom history remembers
as his beloved and supportive wife. Now, as historian
Roald Hoffmann looks more closely at Madame Lavoisier, he
finds much more than the shadow of a great man.
Born Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze in 1758, she married the
28-year-old lawyer/scientist Antoine Lavoisier when she
was only thirteen. They'd been married 23 years
when the Revolution hauled him in on charges of having
collected taxes for the crown.
Marie had spent her teen years studying
chemistry and learning to read English. She also learned
art from the revolutionary painter David. As Hoffmann
traces old records, he finds Marie managing the schedule
of her husband's laboratory and creating fine detailed
drawings of apparatus. She receives no credit, but the
figures in his books carry her signature. Her drawing of
an experiment on respiration shows Antoine directing the
work while she records data at a table off to the side.
And so we wonder: Was she the perfect secretary or a
scientific collaborator? When Irish scientist Richard
Kirwan published An Essay on Phlogiston, Marie
Lavoisier translated it into French. Her husband then
wrote rebuttals for each section. Her role was anonymous
in the first French edition of Kirwan's monograph. But
the later editions all name her as the translator.
And so we try to see the dynamics of interaction between
the husband and wife. Lavoisier's chemistry was new turf. Recent improvements in
instrumentation had sent science off in new directions.
Both Lavoisiers were learning from the ground up.
After her husband's death, Marie ran a scientific salon.
The statesman Pierre-Samuel duPont de Nemours, friend of
Thomas Jefferson and namesake of the Dupont Company,
courted her until she rejected him. In 1805 she married
the notorious expatriate American scientist, Count Rumford. That union quickly
devolved into raging squabbles and lasted only a few
months. She lived on to the age of seventy-eight, and
Hoffmann laments that no one has written her biography.
He thinks there should be an opera.
Anyone familiar with Lavoisier knows David's famous
painting of the couple. Antoine sits writing, while Marie
bodies up against his shoulder. He turns to look at her,
more than just distracted. Her hand hovers next to his
writing hand as she gazes out at us with a faint smile.
David knew this couple well.
He painted them a scant two years after Mozart made his
own revolutionary statement in the opera The Marriage
of Figaro. Mozart has the servant Figaro singing,
"You may go dancing, but I'll play the tune." Perhaps David was the
librettist for Marie's opera, but his version is less
harsh. I like to think that his Marie, unlike Figaro,
knows that history will have the last word.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Hoffmann, R., Mme Lavoisier. American Scientist,
Vol. 90, Jan-Feb, 2002, pp. 22-24.
The complete text (in English) of Lavoisier's
Traité Elémentaire de Chimie
(1789), illustrated by Mme Lavoisier, may be found in:
Lavoisier, Fourier, Faraday, (Great Books of the Western
World series.) (Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Mortimer J.
Adler, eds.) Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica,
Inc., 1952. See Lavoisier, A. L., pp. 1-160.
See the David
painting of the Lavoisiers, and learn more
about it here.
Below: from Traité Elémentaire de Chimie,
Marie Lavoisier's drawing a gazometer:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.