- Antoine Lavoisier: Science, Administration, and Revolution
If Antoine Lavoisier (1743–1794) is remembered at all today, it is as one in the pantheon of great scientists—Newton, Descartes, Darwin—and his inclusion in the Blackwell series of science biographies is a recognition of that distinction. In the late eighteenth century, Lavoisier was among those who reinvented the science of chemistry, establishing modern nomenclature, the now familiar idea of the element, and the concept of combustion as a chemical reaction involving oxygen. Yet unlike modern scientists, for whom science is a profession, Lavoisier could not simply practice science as his living as a result of his election to the French Academy of Sciences in his twenties. His career was in a much more familiar arena of the ancien régime, for Lavoisier, son of a barrister at the Parlement of Paris, was also a bureaucrat. He qualified as a barrister, and in the same year won election to the Academy of Sciences and purchased a share in the Company of Tax Farmers. As a tax farmer, Lavoisier steadily rose in the state bureaucracy; and as a tax farmer, he was guillotined in the Terror.
Like most early modern scientists, therefore, Lavoisier was deeply involved in the world outside science. Even the reclusive Newton became Master of the Mint and embroiled in partisan politics. The great strength of Arthur Donovan’s biography is its portrayal of both sides of Lavoisier’s life. Although the scientist and the bureaucrat came together for a time during Lavoisier’s service on the Gunpowder Administration in the 1770s and on the Committee on Agriculture in the 1780s, for the most part these roles remained separate. Lavoisier conducted the experiments leading up to the publication of his fundamental work, the Traité élementaire de chimie (1789), while continuing to act as a tax farmer. Perhaps inevitably, Donovan’s alternating chapters on science and administration have a “meanwhile back at the ranch” quality.
Donovan is a distinguished historian of eighteenth-century chemistry, and his chapters on Lavoisier’s chemistry are authoritative but accessible to the general reader. He employs primary sources skillfully to create a real sense of the excitement and suspense of scientific inquiry. The chapter on the theory of combustion and Lavoisier’s competitive relationship with Joseph Priestley is especially finely drawn. The chapters on Lavoisier’s administrative career, while revealing no new historical insights, newly contextualize Lavoisier’s scientific career. Similar motivations to contribute to the public welfare underlay both careers. Although Lavoisier certainly made money from the tax farm, his broader goals became evident when he served in Turgot’s reformist ministry in the mid-1770s. The Gunpowder Administration, which replaced the notoriously inefficient gunpowder farm, was one means of using scientific expertise for the public good. [End Page 339] Lavoisier set the problem of the provision of saltpeter, a major component of gunpowder, before the Academy of Sciences as a question for a prize competition. Although the competition did not yield immediate results, this enlisting of science for the public interest was an important precedent. Lavoisier’s later involvement with the Physiocrats had similar goals in the application of scientific principles to agriculture, although Donovan argues that Lavoisier was politically more sophisticated than the theory-bound Physiocrats.
The Academy of Sciences mirrored the larger political world. The debate over Mesmerism in the mid-1780s showed this all too clearly. Donovan accepts Robert Darnton’s linking of Mesmerism and political radicalism. But he argues that the Academy viewed Mesmerism as a threat to both its political and its cognitive authority. Therefore, Lavoisier and others confronted Mesmerism’s scientific claims by immersing themselves in magnetic baths and finding them ineffective. Direct examination and replicable evidence were their weapons. By discrediting Mesmerism’s scientific claims, the Academy also—if temporarily— diffused its political implications.
Lavoisier’s life embodies the contradictions and turmoils of late-eighteenth-century France. By cleaving so closely to Lavoisier’s point of view, however, Donovan gives a narrow and ultimately insupportable view of the origins and progress of...