In 1771 Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze was a lively girl of 13. When her
mother passed away, the young woman left a convent school to help
her father as a hostess. Her vivacity attracted a friend of the
family, the 50-year-old Count d'Amerval. A remarkable letter
survives in Cornell's Lavoisier collection in which Marie Anne's
father diplomatically yet directly declines the Count's
Another suitor was much more welcome. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier had
a law degree, but his passion was for science. As a young man, he
impressed the French scientific establishment with his geological
and chemical research. Lavoisier had just bought a half share in the
Ferme Générale—the ancien
régime's version of what the Internal Revenue Service
might be heading for in some conservative dream—a private
company collecting taxes for the crown. Marie Anne's father was one
of the leading "Farmers."
Lavoisier was a frequent visitor at the Paulze house. He and Marie
Anne played romantic board games, but also spoke of geology,
chemistry and astronomy. When the father proposed a marriage, both
young people welcomed it. Antoine was 28, Marie Anne 13 when they
married. A lovely self-portrait of Mme. Lavoisier survives, which
she must have painted not long after.
Antoine Laurent Lavoisier
In telling the story of Mme. Lavoisier, I will not do justice (in
several ways) to her husband. This young natural philosopher
mastered the art of careful experimentation in chemistry and
physics. Independently wealthy from his fermier's income,
he filled a private laboratory with balances, burning lenses and
metal vessels of an unmatched magnitude and quality. In a way,
Lavoisier's science was the big science of his day. His feeling for
balance found expression in science: "Nothing is gained,
nothing is lost" could be applied equally to economics and to
the mass balances of chemistry.
Lavoisier gave the first correct accounts of burning, respiration
and rusting. In bringing about the Chemical Revolution, he properly
defined the elements (though he thought heat was one), showed that
water was a compound and air a mixture, and proposed a new
systematic nomenclature for chemistry. In the remainder of his time,
he dealt with one practical problem after another—he debunked
mesmerism, thought about contagious disease in cities, ensured that
young America got its gunpowder, adjudicated disputes on ballooning
and, after the revolution, participated in the work on the metric
system. Citizen Lavoisier's work for the French Republic did not
save him from the Jacobin terror. On May 8, 1794, he and his
father-in-law were executed, along with 26 other Farmers General.
Her Husband's Helpmeet, and After
Mme. Lavoisier ran a popular salon, to be sure. But from early on in
her marriage she took instruction in chemistry to help her husband
in his work. She learned to read English to translate important
books from a language Lavoisier lacked. Mme. Lavoisier learned to
draw from Jacques-Louis David. His expensively commissioned portrait
of the couple (published in American Scientist,
January–February 1996) tells us of their
relationship. The two are physically close, her arm rests on his
shoulder. But there is a distance between them. To me there is also
a certain tension in the leaning posture of Mme. Lavoisier—am
I imagining that she is pressing in, and would like to enter
Lavoisier's realm of instruments in the right-hand part of the
picture? Lavoisier looks at his wife—she looks out as us, at
the world. They had no children.
After her husband's death, Mme. Lavoisier herself spent 65 days in
jail. Emerging, she recovered his confiscated books and kept his
works in print. Long loved by Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, she
rejected him. In 1805 she married the American/ British/Bavarian
adventurer, inventor and scientist Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford.
The marriage was an unhappy one—it's reported that she poured
boiling water on his flowers—and ended four years later. Mme.
Lavoisier lived on until 1836.
There is no biography of Mme. Lavoisier. I think she deserves an opera.
But Was She a Chemist?
There is no published scientific paper in Marie Anne Lavoisier's
name. She translated from the English Kirwan's "An Essay on
Phlogiston," with appended notes by Lavoisier and friends,
notes intended (correctly) to systematically demolish Kirwan's
argument. The original edition did not carry her name as translator,
but subsequent ones did.
Elsewhere, she draws herself in their laboratory. Two of her
strikingly realistic and beautifully composed images of Lavoisier's
work on respiration survive. These are classic visual documents of
chemical experimentation. In Figure 3, Mme. Lavoisier is at right,
sitting at a table, quill in hand. She turns to observe the
experiment, waiting to write down the measurements as they are
called out by her husband or his assistant. Here she is an
amanuensis. She was more at times; she also wrote the plan for what
experiments were done at Lavoisier's Arsenal laboratory on a
And Marie Anne Lavoisier produced the plates for Lavoisier's
Traité Élémentaire de
Chimie, published in the year 1789, that of another Revolution.
In Cornell's library are her watercolor sketches for the 13
remarkable plates that illustrated the book that changed chemistry.
We have several êtats of the plates, including the
one shown here (Figure 4), where she adds a correction in
the 1789 equivalent of a Post-It, a paper note literally pinned to
the print. We have a copper plate, which she engraved herself; the
plates from beginning to end are Mme. Lavoisier's work. When
satisfied, she signed a proof Bonne, followed by her
initials. In the book there is no credit to her, only the plates are
signed Paulze Lavoisier sculpsit, to testify to
Mme. Lavoisier could not have been a chemist. No fault of her own,
for she had the intelligence and the training—society did not
allow women to follow that path for a hundred years after her time.
That's how long France had to wait for another Marie.
There were exceptions, for in many ways 18th- century French culture
did provide a place for women as intellectuals, more so than other
European societies of the time. Forty years before Mme. Lavoisier,
there was Emilie de Breteuil, the Marquise du Châtelet
(1706–1749), who studied mathematics and physics. She married,
in the normal way of aristocracy, and led an intellectual life
separate from her marriage. Voltaire, her lover for some years,
encouraged her to undertake the first full French translation of
Newton's Principia. This she did, ably so, and also wrote
of Leibniz's work. A younger contemporary of Mme. Lavoisier was the
mathematician Sophie Germain (1776–1831), who used a pseudonym
to come into professional contact with J. L. Lagrange and Carl
The exceptions were just that; the world of the Salons—an
exciting intellectual world to be sure—and a correspondence
with natural philosophers is what upper class women could aspire to.
At best. I speculate that Mme. Lavoisier was not resentful; she
shifted her creativity into other channels, as many a woman has done
Still, when I think of the story of Mme. Lavoisier, I feel a great
loss, a sadness. This smart woman was much less isolated from the
scientific world than Mme. du Châtelet. As her drawings and
the historical record testify, Mme. Lavoisier moved in the company
of scientists, and good ones at that. The sadness that comes over me
is that they, and her husband in the first line, did not recognize
her abilities. David Corson has shown me, and not once, that
intimate treasure trove of Cornell's Lavoisier Collection. I
thank Marco Beretta for allowing me to use some of the
illustrations he so lovingly has collected and analyzed, and
Pierre Laszlo for a corrective comment.
© Roald Hoffmann