Vive La Revolution
Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist. Jean-Pierre Poirier; tr. Rebecca Balinski. 516 pp. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. $19.95 paper.
Our author begins with the magnificent portrait (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) of Antoine Lavoisier with Marie Anne, his wife, painted by J. L. David: They are splendidly dressed, he seated at a table with papers and apparatus and looking at her, while she stands facing the spectator. For Poirier, the picture indicates Lavoisier's success, by the age of 45 and on the verge of the French Revolution: "equally at home in scientific, aristocratic, financial, and governmental circles."
Few eminent scientists have been publicly executed, and the 1994 bicentennial of Lavoisier's death has provoked much study, including Arthur Donovan's 1993 biography Antoine Lavoisier: Science, Administration and Revolution. Poirier seems a little less assured about the science, but his telling anecdotes and thumbnail sketches of contemporaries are vivid. What is striking about his account is that we meet Lavoisier the financier, indecently rich from profitably running the royal tax system amid the starving unemployed of Paris. For Lavoisier, chemistry was one activity among others on the way to fame and (especially) fortune.
By the middle of the book, Lavoisier's chemical revolution (his word) is completed; what scientific research he undertook later was carried out by assistants. Lavoisier meanwhile immersed himself in the abstract world of figures and finance, while all about him French society collapsed. Scientists as a group are no more or less genial than any others; some, one would love to meet and talk to, but Lavoisier seems to have aroused admiration or resentment rather than friendship. He emerges as a cool and ambitious individual, capable of generosity to assistants and clients, but not very likable. Marie Anne seems no better, her long widowhood (during which she briefly married Count Rumford, the dashing American Tory refugee and scientist) being described in a last chapter. Clearly, Lavoisier had an unusually acute mind, and he applied to chemistry the principles of accounting, which took the form of conservation of matter. Where others had worked qualitatively, he weighed and measured; he also saw the point, in the tradition of the great Swede Carolus Linnaeus, of a clear international language for conveying facts economically. Poirier explains the experiments and reasoning that led to the oxygen theories of burning, acidity and respiration. He places Lavoisier in a group and a tradition: something Lavoisier, who saw the chemical revolution as his own, would have tried to resist.
Then we learn a great deal about the Tax Farm and other agencies of the government, and how Lavoisier and others tried to modernize the French state, bankrupted by its wars. Clearly, in any political revolution it would not only be the king and ancient nobility who would suffer: Those who had made millions should have expected no mercy. Lavoisier clearly believed that his own preference for a constitution with checks and balances, his scientific eminence, and the fact that he had done nothing strictly illegal would save him from the Reign of Terror.
Poirier concludes that Lavoisier could have saved his life if he had sensibly gone to Scotland for an extended trip to meet Joseph Black and others, as he once said he would—or perhaps if his wife had charmed instead of affronting the sans-culotte investigator in his trial. Probably his fellow academicians, under suspicion as elitists, could have done no more. For the biographer there is much to be said for a life that ends suddenly when the hero is still at the height of his powers. Poirier is to be congratulated on giving us a new perspective and an important and readable life.—David Knight, Philosophy, University of Durham, England