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Mme. Lavoisier

Roald Hoffmann

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.Figure 4. One of the proof pages . . .Click to Enlarge Image

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 particular day.

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 her engraving.

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 Friedrich Gauss.

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 over millennia.

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

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