Science Poetry

Air of Mystery

“Skillfully, quill-fully:
Madame Lavoisier,
Translating chemistry, 
Husband at side…
Pair works in tandem;
Dephlogisticated air
Named now as oxygen,

The 8 April 2020 poem was another scientific biography in shorthand, recounting a famous discovery of the Lavosiers (Antoine and Marie-Anne Lavoisier), two landmark figures in the history of chemistry.      

“Skillfully, quill-fully: /
Madame Lavoisier, /
Translating chemistry, / 
Husband at side…”
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794) is renowned as a major figure in the Chemical Revolution: the shift of chemistry towards more systematic investigations.  Often mentioned as a sidenote in chemical histories is the fact that his wife, Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier (1758-1836) was herself a scientist; indeed, she translated the scientific documents that facilitated many of her husband’s discoveries (presumably, with a quill!).  This seems worthy of more than a passing comment, and this poem attempts to address that humorously.      

“Pair works in tandem; /
Dephlogisticated air /
Named now as oxygen, /
The Lavoisiers’ chemistry insights were many; this poem focuses on one.  The phlogiston theory had been the prevailing understanding of combustion prior to the Lavoisiers’ work.  This theory postulated that combustible materials contained phlogiston, which was released when they burned.  Several scientists, among them English chemist Joseph Priestly, used the phlogiston theory to rationalize aspects of combustion.  The Lavoisiers, through a series of rigorous quantitative experiments, showed that combustion was instead explained by the oxygen theory: when a sample reacts with oxygen, it undergoes combustion, yielding an oxidized product.  

What Joseph Priestly had isolated and referred to as “dephlogisticated air” was thus clarified to be “oxygen,” and the element was named as such by Antoine Lavoiser.  This chemical insight was aided greatly by the work of Marie-Anne Lavoisier, who had the scientific knowledge and language fluency to translate key research articles into French so that her husband could read them.   

The compelling story of oxygen’s isolation and characterization has been told in much greater detail by other writers!  These lines focus on the unique chemistry of the Lavoisiers themselves, highlighting their collaborative research process.