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?
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.