Jan. 30, 2007

CU Library's great treasure of science: Lavoisier collection is Mme. Lavoisier's achievement

The hands of Cornell librarian David Corson literally shook as he sorted through Cornell Library's most recent acquisition of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier materials. Here were the very books handbound in the distinctive style of Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier, the great French chemist's artistically gifted wife.

Lavoisier, 1743-1794, is credited as the "father" of modern chemistry -- and incorrectly credited by many with the discovery of oxygen. (The English chemist Joseph Priestley and the Swedish chemist Karl Wilhelm Scheele also are claimants.)

No matter. There in Corson's hands was Madame Lavoisier's very own 1789 copy of her husband's book, "Traité Élémentaire de Chimie" -- "arguably the most famous chemistry treatise ever published," according to Corson, curator of the library's History of Science Collections. It is also a work for which Madame Lavoisier created all of the illustrations.

Cornell's Lavoisier Collection is the largest set of materials on the French chemist outside of Paris. The initial portion of this collection, originally assembled by Madame Lavoisier after her husband's execution during the French Revolution, was purchased by Cornell in 1962. One of its treasured items is Madame Lavoisier's travel case or nécessaire, which plays a critical role in the two-act play "Oxygen," co-written in 2000 by Roald Hoffmann, Cornell's Nobel laureate in chemistry and the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, and Stanford University chemistry professor Carl Djerassi.

Earlier this year Cornell Library purchased the last remaining portion of Madame Lavoisier's original collection, including hundreds of pages of additional manuscript material and more than 150 printed items not previously held by Cornell. According to Corson, the collection's 2,000 books and manuscripts document all aspects of Antoine Lavoisier's career, most notably his crucial work not only with oxygen but also in developing modern chemical nomenclature. Included are laboratory notes from his dramatic experiments on the decomposition and recomposition of water that helped demonstrate the existence of oxygen and its role in chemical reactions.

But the heroine of this story is Madame Lavoisier. The first biography of her was published only two years ago, but according to Hoffmann," she deserves an opera."

During the Reign of Terror, Madame Lavoisier's husband and father were tried, convicted and guillotined on the same day: May 8, 1794. She was later jailed and freed and then fought for her husband's reputation and materials. Without her, there would have been no Lavoisier Collection at Cornell.

For more information about the collection, contact Corson at (607) 255-5477 or e-mail dwc4@cornell.edu.