Antoine Lavoisier


It is generally accepted that Lavoisier's great accomplishments in chemistry largely stem from his changing the science from a qualitative to a quantitative one. Lavoisier is most noted for his discovery of the role oxygen plays in combustion. He recognized and named oxygen (1778) and hydrogen (1783) and opposed the phlogiston theory. Lavoisier helped construct the metric system, wrote the first extensive list of elements, and helped to reform chemical nomenclature. He predicted the existence of silicon (1787) and was also the first to establish that sulfur was an element (1777) rather than a compound. He discovered that, although matter may change its form or shape, its mass always remains the same.
It was very difficult to secure public funding for the sciences at the time, and additionally not very financially profitable for the average scientist, so Lavoisier used his wealth to open a very expensive and sophisticated laboratory in France so that aspiring scientists could study without the barriers of securing funding for their research.
Lavoisier urged the establishment of a Royal Commission on Agriculture. He then served as its Secretary and spent considerable sums of his own money in order to improve the agricultural yields in the Sologne, an area where farmland was of poor quality. The humidity of the region often led to a blight of the rye harvest, causing outbreaks of ergotism among the population. In 1788 Lavoisier presented a report to the Commission detailing ten years of efforts on his experimental farm to introduce new crops and types of livestock. His conclusion was that despite the possibilities of agricultural reforms, the tax system left tenant farmers with so little that it was unrealistic to expect them to change their traditional practices.
This continuous slow combustion, which they supposed took place in the lungs, enabled the living animal to maintain its body temperature above that of its surroundings, thus accounting for the puzzling phenomenon of animal heat. Lavoisier continued these respiration experiments in 1789–1790 in cooperation with Armand Seguin. They designed an ambitious set of experiments to study the whole process of body metabolism and respiration using Seguin as a human guinea pig in the experiments. Their work was only partially completed and published because of the disruption of the Revolution; but Lavoisier's pioneering work in this field served to inspire similar research on physiological processes for generations to come.
He was essentially a theorist, and his great merit lay in his capacity to take over experimental work that others had carried out—without always adequately recognizing their claims—and by a rigorous logical procedure, reinforced by his own quantitative experiments, expounding the true explanation of the results. He completed the work of Black, Priestley and Cavendish, and gave a correct explanation of their experiments.