Antoine Lavoisier (1743 – 1794) has been called the “father of modern chemistry,” and he probably deserves it. The guy discovered oxygen. He named both oxygen (1778) and hydrogen (1783) and put together one of the first tables of elements. He helped construct the metric system. He figured out the Law of Conservation of Mass. He invented the system of chemical nomenclature that is still largely in use today. Oh and the theories of respiration and combustion.
He was a man of contradictions: an aristocrat, but socially liberal. He was a tax collector, but he worked to reform the corrupt French tax system. He also married an accomplished and intelligent woman, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, who translated his documents and illustrated his scientific texts. Unfortunately, in the course of his illustrious career as a scientist, he made a powerful enemy.
Jean-Paul Marat, in the words of historian Walter Gratzer, “was a fanatical and violent man, probably unhinged, who nurtured an aspiration to make his mark as a savant.” When Marat tried to become a member of the Academy of Sciences, Lavoisier publicly belittled him. This made Marat furious, and Marat was not the sort of person you wanted to piss off. He began plotting his revenge against Lavoisier, and four years later, he became a feared Revolutionary activist.
Lavoisier was a member of the Farmer’s General, an unpopular private company that collected taxes and tariffs for the government. During the Reign of Terror, Marat denounced Lavoisier as an enemy of the people, and Lavoisier was rounded up by government security forces along with the rest of the members of the Farmer’s General, and thrown into prison. After a farcical trial, Lavoisier was beheaded at the guillotine. (Marat didn’t live to gloat about it, as he had been stabbed in his bathtub the previous July by Charlotte Corday. I think Marat deserves his own blog post.)
The mathematician Lagrange said of Lavoisier,
“It took them only a moment to sever that head, and a hundred years perhaps will not suffice to produce another like it.”