Arrested, tried and guillotined

26 August 2014

The French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was born today in 1743, to a wealthy family in Paris. The son of an attorney at the Parlement of Paris, he inherited a large fortune at the age of five with the passing of his mother.

Lavoisier began his schooling at the Collège des Quatre-Nations (known as the Collège Mazarin) in Paris in 1754 at the age of eleven. In his last two years (1760–1761) at the college, he developed his scientific interests, studying chemistry, botany, astronomy and mathematics. Lavoisier chose to enter the school of law, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1763 and a licentiate in 1764. He received a law degree and was admitted to the bar but never practiced as a lawyer. However, he continued his scientific education in his spare time.

In 1771 at the age of 28, Lavoisier married Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, the 13-year-old daughter of a senior member of the Ferme générale. She played an important part in his scientific career, translating English documents for him. His many scientific achievements included the discovery of oxygen and the development of a systematic method of naming compounds. He was also involved with the collection of taxes, which made him an object of suspicion during the French Revolution; he was arrested, tried and guillotined in 1794.

The day after his death, the mathematician Joseph Lagrange remarked, ‘It took only a moment to sever that head, and perhaps a hundred years will not be sufficient to produce another like it.’

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