Portrait of a Scientist

Antoine Lavoisier. Most people might remember this name from their school Chemistry lessons when learning about stoichiometry in reactions, or the law of conservation of mass.¬†This principle states that, for any system, mass cannot be created or destroyed, only changed from one form into another. Lavoisier also disproved the phlogiston theory, common amongst chemists and alchemists of the time (eighteenth century), that all combustible materials released a ‘fire-like element’ known as phlogiston during combustion. However, Lavoisier, including the English chemist Joseph Priestley, studied the elements involved in combustion reactions. Lavoisier discovered that the element oxygen, along with hydrogen, were involved in combustion processes. These discoveries, including many other ¬†observations made Lavoisier a well-respected and influential scientist, whose name is still spoken of today.

However, as they say,”behind every great man, there is a great woman“. It has been widely reported that Lavoisier’s wife, Marie-Anne Lavoisier, assisted him in the laboratory, wrote up his findings and translated English documents for him. But, is this all she did? Who was the real brains behind the science in their home? Was there more to this notable couple than meets the eye?
(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Well, let us look at this portrait of Lavoisier and his wife painted by Ernest Board in the 1920s. The description of this painting states: Antoine Lavoisier explaining to his wife the result of his experiments on air (wellcomeimages.org). This seems to be the general view of his wife. The simple laboratory assistant who helped her husband with his experiments, but who did not understand the science behind the work herself. This notion could be taken from Board’s painting, as Marie-Anne is depicted as listening intently to her husband, perhaps taking instructions, or indeed hearing the results of his experiments. However, I struggle with this interpretation. The quizzical look on Antoine’s face, and the fact that he is holding his pen the wrong way round (!), lead me to believe that even in this portrait (painted decades later), the artist wishes us to see something different. That it could be the other way around. Marie-Anne is trying to explain something to him.

This idea that she knew more than people thought, that she was perhaps the brains behind all of his scientific breakthroughs, and thus legacy, maybe changes the way we should think about scientists of the past and their female, so-called ‘assistants’. We can see this idea even more clearly in the more well-known portrait of Antoine Lavoisier, commissioned by Marie-Anne in 1788, from the French painter Jacques-Louis David.


This beautiful painting, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is not only a much more exquisite piece of art, but also allows the viewer to see much more clearly the larger role Marie-Anne played. In this portrait, Lavoisier is seated, looking up to his wife, clearly taking direction and notations from her. She is centre of the portrait, looking to the viewer, with a directorial hand upon his shoulder.

There are many notable scientists of the past who had female laboratory assistants. This one portrait may shed some light on their roles within the understanding and actual significant breakthroughs within science over the years. But their names have been lost whilst their employers’, masters’ or even husbands’ names live on. I look forward to rediscovering who they were, their stories and reigniting their memory.

One may look at David’s painting and think that it is a portrait of Lavoisier – the scientist. In fact, it is a portrait of his wife – the scientist. ¬†


Museo Galileo Visit

img_0041Last October I was very lucky to go on a trip with my research group to the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Florence has always been one of my favourite cities, but I had never visited their Museum of the History of Science before. So, naturally, being a group of scientists, this was top of our list and indeed our first stop!

Situated on three levels (and a basement!) overlooking the river, the Museo Galileo houses an extensive range of scientific instruments and equipment from both the Medici (15th-18th centuries) and Lorraine (18th-19th centuries) dynasties. The collections consist of a number of detailed and exquisite armillary spheres (the most breathtaking featured in the picture here), globes, thermometers, telescopes and the largest collection of scientific experimental apparatus I’ve ever seen. These apparatus portray just how inspiring the area of Tuscany was during the Medici period and how much they contributed to the progress of areas of science such as astronomy, chemistry, electricity, electromagnetism and physics.

Another draw to this museum (and something I was looking forward to seeing!) is the fact that it is the home of Galileo Galilei’s finger! In fact, in 2010, the famous astronomist’s finger was joined by his thumb, middle finger and one of his teeth when the bones turned up at an auction in 2009. They are now showcased in a small and delicate glass egg, as well as in a bell jar, all together in a small cabinet in the middle of the museum’s collection of scientific equipment and apparatus. Having seen many religious relics of saints which are venerated and take pride of place in churches and cathedrals, I was surprised that Galileo’s finger wasn’t given more importance within the museum – I almost missed it, and people were just walking past it! However, with his remains now interred at the Basilica di Santa Croce just around the corner, I suppose he would find some humour in the fact that his middle finger was removed so that it could sit defiantly within the telescopes that made him so hated by the church!


One final thought – the large number of scientific equipment from the later centuries that were used to demonstrate the various laws of physics made me realise how we have lost the art of teaching science by these beautifully crafted apparatus. If these methods of scientific teaching could be adopted in schools, at universities and amongst the general public in open lectures more often, then perhaps more people would be interested and inspired to pursue careers in the more ‘tougher’ STEM subjects like physics and engineering. As the French clergyman and physicist Jean-Antoine Nollet once said, “Experimental physics cannot do without instruments”.