Happy Birthday, Antoine Lavoisier
Although trained as a lawyer, the eighteenth century French nobleman and scientist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was much more interested in science (or “the Sciences”) than legal matters. At age 29, he began studying combustion and “calcination” (oxidation) of metals, which he hypothesized was due to the absorption of air during combustion. Lavoisier diligently submitted his observations and conclusions to the French Academy of Science in a series of important scientific papers that ultimately represented the identification of oxygen and its role in combustion.
In 1789, he published a major work, Traité élémentaire de chimie, which contains the concepts that set chemistry on its modern path and earned him his fame as the “father of modern chemistry.” Many students today repeat some of Lavoisier's experiments to learn about basic chemistry, and name chemical compounds using the method he devised.
More than a chemist
Lavoisier was more than a chemist, he was also a pioneer in several areas — physiology, scientific agriculture and technology, and a leading figure in finance, economics, public education and government.
He was a member of the commission that developed the metric system in an effort to improve the uniformity of weights and measures throughout France.
In 1778, Lavoisier purchased an estate called Fréchines and the surrounding land, where he established the first experimental farm. There, he led experiments that increased the productivity of the land, and he lobbied to change laws and customs that would enable farmers to implement his methods. His work inspired experimental farms established in recent times.
Inspiration for scientific innovation
There is a close personal connection between the father of modern chemistry and the founder of DuPont. In 1775, the French government enlisted Lavoisier to address a shortage of gunpowder, and he took a scientific approach to develop more efficient ways to produce saltpeter, a key ingredient. He hired Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, the 17-year-old son of his associate Pierre du Pont, as an apprentice.
When the Du Ponts arrived in America in 1800, they needed to establish a new business. E.I. convinced his father that there was great opportunity in this emerging nation for an improved black powder, and in 1802, E.I. du Pont established his company on the banks of the Brandywine River. E.I. had not only learned the most advanced powder making technologies from Lavoisier, he had absorbed the spirit of innovation that guided Lavoisier’s research, as well.
Today, DuPont pays tribute to Lavoisier by honoring the company’s most outstanding scientists and engineers with his name. The Lavoisier Medal of Technical Achievement is awarded to scientists and engineers in DuPont who demonstrate his excellence of scientific thought and his commitment to service for society.