Although Lavoisier began his scientific career as a geologist, his greatest achievements were in the field of chemistry. Most notably it was Lavoisier who proposed the name “oxygen” for what had been hitherto described as “dephilogisticated air.” In addition to his experiments that observed chemical reactions involving oxygen, Lavoisier took an interest in such diverse matters as agriculture and the poor conditions in prisons and hospitals throughout France. “The range of Lavoisier’s activity is hard for lesser talents and less rigidly disciplined personalities to comprehend,” (DSB).
In 1771, Lavoisier married 13-year-old Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, the daughter of a colleague at the Ferme Générale, an agency that collected taxes and tariffs for the government. Lavoisier was 15 years her senior, and, as Madame Lavoisier became interested in chemistry, he welcomed her into his laboratory and arranged for her to have formal training from several of his esteemed colleagues. Soon, Madame Lavoisier was assisting him in the laboratory, translating important works pertinent to their research and recording details of their experiments. Madame Lavoisier was fluent in several languages and had trained under French painter Jacques-Louis David (whose portrait of the couple in the Metropolitan Museum’s Wrightsman Collection is reproduced below), and with her artistic abilities made detailed drawings of their work. Together, the Lavoisers applied the scientific method to transform what was essentially alchemy into modern chemistry.
Unfortunately, the French Revolution interfered with their lives and work. As the institutions with which Lavoisier had been affiliated toppled or changed under revolutionary pressure, Jean-Paul Marat (a scientist in his own right) and others became outspoken critics of Lavoisier. During The Terror, Lavoisier and his colleagues from the Ferme Générale were arrested, imprisoned and, on May 8, 1794, executed. “His death on the guillotine in his fifty-first year, with creative powers still undiminished, has marked him, with the obvious exceptions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, as the outstanding martyr to the excesses of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution” (ibid.).
After Lavoisier’s death, Madame Lavoisier married famed physicist, Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford in 1804 on the condition that she could retain the last name of her first husband. Rumford was an American-born physicist with an interest in thermodynamics. After fighting alongside the loyalists during the American Revolution, when he conducted experiments relating to gun powder, he moved to Bavaria, becoming an aide-de-camp to Prince-elector Charles Theodore who made him Count Rumford and, in whose service, he continued his experiments with explosives and heat. In addition to his work with thermodynamics, Rumford is responsible for numerous inventions including industrial furnaces, kitchen stoves, the percolating coffeepot, and the Rumford fireplace, all of which brought him fame and wealth. In collaboration with Sir Humphrey Davy, he established the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1799, endowing the institution’s prestigious Rumford Medal. Lavoisier and Rumford’s marriage lasted only three years, after which they separated.
Written on the first and second leaves of a single folded sheet. In very fine condition and rare – the only example we have ever handled in 44 years.