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