Lavoisier as Historian of Chemistry and Philosopher of Science

Nicholas Best History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana University 2009-2010 Dissertation Research Fellow Antoine Lavoisier is already famous as the star of the chemical revolution, and much historical work has been done emphasizing the concrete empirical and theoretical contributions he made to the science of chemistry. Recently there has been increasing awareness of Lavoisier’s role as a self-publicist but so far little has been written about Lavoisier’s views of his predecessors and his relationships with his contemporaries. My dissertation project places Lavoisier in his social and intellectual context, examining what Lavoisier was reacting against as a means of understanding what was so revolutionary about the chemical revolution. A PACHS Dissertation Research Fellowship in the summer of 2010 supported my research on this topic at four PACHS member institutions – the University of Pennsylvania, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the Hagley Library and the American Philosophical Society. In the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania John Pollack and Lynne Farrington helped me locate several important texts. The Edgar Fahrs Smith collection provided me with valuable primary sources including such rare texts as Macquer & Baumé’s Plan d'un cours de chymie expérimentale et raisonnée. Paul Schrecker collections proved to be a veritable treasure trove of obscure secondary sources on the history of chemistry as well as a few works of popular history that would have been otherwise impossible to find. As well as placing these at my disposal, the staff were happy to answer random queries about the authorship and printing conventions of eighteenth-century books, which was helpful for my research in a very practical way. Beyond their rare book collections, the open stacks of the Van Pelt library held an incredible range of contemporary scholarship, particularly niche books and journals published in France and not held in other university libraries in the United States. The library of the American Philosophical Society (APS) gave me access to Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence as well as advice and anecdotes from Franklin scholars. I was able to consult letters between Franklin and such luminaries as Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Priestley and Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours. Along with Franklin’s accounts of famous public experiments, I also found more mundane notes such as invitations to dinner with the Lavoisiers, which provided an insight into the day-to-day lives of these eminent scientists during a period of scientific and political upheaval. Manuscript collections at the APS gave me the opportunity to consult a hand-written copy of Joseph Priestley’s “Experiments Relating to Phlogiston, and the Seeming Conversion of Water into Air”, a seminal paper that helped draw the battle lines of the Chemical Revolution. The Hagley Museum and Library provided me with the opportunity to consult the types of resources that few other institutions offer. Most remarkable was their photographic catalogue of Antoine Lavoisier’s instruments, one of only two copies in the world. This valuable resource, created by Douglas McKie at the behest of P.S. Dupont, added an extra dimension to my understanding of Lavoisier as an experimentalist. Also at the Hagley library was a selection of French magazines published around the time of the Lavoisier bicentenary (1993), which gave me a different perspective on recent Lavoisier scholarship by allowing me to see the popularized accounts that are never found in purely academic literature and extremely difficult to obtain outside France. The Chemical Heritage Foundation provided me unfettered access to primary sources by Antoine Baumé, Pierre-Joseph Macquer, Nicolas Lémery and others as well as a wealth of contemporary literature. James Voelkel and the other librarians very helpfully gave me a realistic picture of recent bibliographical scholarship with a rare enthusiasm for the sort of books I consult. My PACHS fellowship allowed me to spend significant and productive time in libraries and archives throughout Philadelphia. Since this topic was originally proposed for a PACHS fellowship, the scope of my dissertation has shifted slightly towards the more political aspects of the Chemical Revolution, thanks largely to the perspective gained from the Franklin papers at the American Philosophical Society. This period of research added breadth and depth to my understanding of the primary and secondary sources and I am certain that my dissertation will be significantly better because of this experience. I am most grateful to the librarians, staff, other graduate students and scholars who assisted and inspired me during my month among the PACHS community.

Nicholas Best