When hearing Lavoisier, most people think about Antoine – the chemist – rather than Marie-Anne, his wife. Yet, almost anyone who has read a Lavoisier has also unknowingly seen her work.

Paulze was born in a relatively wealthy family, listed by some French authors as belonging to the low nobility. Although opinions differ on how close she was to her future husband prior to their engagement, her father’s surviving correspondence does indicate that their wedding – when she was only 13 and Lavoisier 28 – was a mean to avoid a marriage arranged by a maternal relative.

Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, présenté dans un ordre nouveau et d'après les découverts modernes ; avec figures ; par M. Lavoisier, de l'Académie des Sciences, de la Société Royale de Médecine, des Sociétés d'Agriculture de Paris et d'Orléans, de la Société Royale de Londres, de l'Institut de Bologne, de la Société Helvétique de Basle, de celles de Philadelphie, Harlem, Manchester, Padoue, etc. 
Tome Second.
A Paris, chez Cuchet, Libraire, rue et hotel Serpente.
MDCCLXXXIX.
Title page of the Traité Élémentaire de Chimie

The artist and salon-leader

Paulze’s most obvious contribution to science are the thirteen engravings adorning Lavoisier’s Traité élémentaire de Chimie, all signed ‘Paulze-Lavoisier’. Having taken classes with famous artist and art teacher Jacques-Louis David, she also produced at least two additional drawings showing the Lavoisier laboratory and experiments, with herself visible at a desk at the back. [1]

As many upper-class women of her time, Paulze held a weekly salon where various visitors could exchange on the latest inventions and discoveries. These salons were key in the spreading of scientific ideas during the Enlightenment, providing a social space for upper-class researchers to exchange on their latest experiments and discoveries [2]. Fara [3] notes: “Within a few years she was leading one of Paris’ most important scientific conversation circles, entertaining Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, James Watt and many other distinguished visitors. Lavoisier’s scientific success depended on being able to gain the backing of influential people by inviting them to these salons.” (2004, p.175). This highlights the importance Paulze had in furthering her husband’s ideas, but also her own ability to hold the attention and conversation of these ‘distinguished’ scientists.

The translator

It is known that Paulze learnt several additional languages – Latin, Italian, and English – to better communicate with foreign scientists and translates their works. As her husband did not read English, these translations were key in keeping him and his co-workers informed of the latest discoveries abroad [4].

The most important example of her contribution is, without doubt, her translation of Richard Kirwan’s Essay on Phlogiston and the Constitution of Acids (1787). Phlogiston (‘burning up’ in Ancient Greek) theory would date as far back as Aristotle, but would not be fully formulated until George Stahl’s experiments in the late 17th century. The idea was that ‘phlogiston’ would be released during any combustion of ‘phlogisticated’ elements, and then absorbed by plants. Kirwan identified ‘phlogiston’ as ‘inflammable air’, but Lavoisier did not believe in this theory. [5]

Paulze’s translation, with commentaries and further notes, was an instrumental text in the end of the phlogiston theory. Her own additions to the work were widely acknowledged at the time, however it would take modern studies to truly understand the depth of the annotations she made to the text. It was noted, for example, that the reference notes were much more precise in the translated French than they had been in English, showing her own knowledge of sciences. [6]

The chemist?

From her translations, notes, and the correspondence surrounding her, it is clear that Paulze had an excellent grasp of chemistry. Ruelland [7] notes that her handwriting was easily noticeable throughout the research notes taken during Lavoisier’s experiments, and that she had likely started to take measurements for these experiments as early as 1772 – a year into their marriage.

Had Lavoisier lived, it is very possible that she would have continued to contribute to his works. However, the Terror cut this short. In 1794, both Lavoisier and Paulze’s father were accused of having defrauded the state, arrested, and executed. Paulze herself spent over two months in prison, followed by over a year waiting for her properties to be returned to her after being confiscated – this including all of Lavoisier’s papers, their instruments, and of course their money. It would take ten years for her to finally publish her husband’s final works in the Mémoires de Chimie.

Kawashima [8] reminds us that in doing so, Paulze was not just expanding Lavoisier’s influence, but she was also raising her own status. In 18th and 19th century France, a woman’s intellectual value was based on her husband’s – or nearest male relative’s – work; they were to be diligent and dutiful assistants, not researchers in their own right. Additionally, post-Revolution France placed much more importance on the newly-created or democratised schools and universities, which were closed to women.

A short and failed marriage to American scientist Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, did not bring her the freedom of study she had enjoyed as Lavoisier’s partner [9]. She continued to hold scientific salons until she passed away in 1836.

Paulze Lavoisier Sculp.
Paulze’s engraver signature at the bottom of her illustrations

Blog post researched, written and produced by Raphaëlle Goyeau, Library Assistant.

Pictured

STORE 123:19-20. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Marie-Anne Pierrette Lavoisier. Traité élémentaire de chimie : présenté dans un ordre nouveau et d’après les découvertes modernes. Paris: Chez Cuchet ; de l’Imprimerie Chardon. 1789.

References

[1] Mary Vidal. ‘The ‘Other Atelier’: Jacques-Louis David’s Female Students’. In Melissa Hyde, Jennifer Milam, Alluson M. Poska, and Abby Zanger, Women, Art and the Poltiics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century Europe. London: Routledge. 2003.

[2] Charles W.J. Withers. Placing the Enlightenment thinking geographically about the age of reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2007. – In particular pp. 76-86 ‘Talking places: coffeehouses, pubs, and salons’.

[3] Patricia Fara. Pandora’s breeches : women, science and power in the Enlightenment. London: Pimlico. 2004.

[4] Alexandre Yu Rulev and Mikhail G. Voronjov. ‘Women in chemistry: a life devoted to science’, New journal of chemistry, 37(12), 3826-3832. 

[5] Seymour Mauskop. ‘Richard Kirwan’s Phlogiston Theory: Its Success and Fate’, Ambix, 49(3), 185-205.

[6] Keiko Kawashima. ‘Madame Lavoisier et la traduction française de l’“Essay on phlogiston” de Kirwan’, Revue d’histoire des sciences, 53(2), 235-263.

[7] Jacques G. Ruelland. ‘Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze-Lavoisier, Comtesse de Rumford (1758-1836): Lumière surgie de l’ombre’, Dix-huitième siècle, 36(1), 99-112.

[8] Keiko Kawashima. Émilie du Châtelet et Marie-Anne Lavoisier : science et genre au XVIIIe siècle. Paris : Honoré Champion Éditeur. 2013.

[9] Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham. ‘Sone pioneering Canadian women chemists: lives and contributions’, Canadian journal of chemistry, 99(8), 661-667.

Advertisement