Contribution to the History of Photosynthesis: Antoine Lavoisier

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Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794). Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was a French chemist and tax farmer (collector of tax for the king) and now considered the father of modern chemistry. He investigated the composition of air and water. He showed that fixed air (later to be identified as carbon dioxide) was made up of carbon and oxygen (Govindjee and Krogmann 2004).

Deliberately, he pursued experiments to disprove the Phlogiston Theory and well he did, replacing it with his Oxygen Theory which accounts for the “dephlogisticated air” that is given off by plants in the process of photosynthesis. In 1776 he demonstrated that common air was not a simple substance and that only one-fourth of the entirety of common air consisted of respirable air (Egerton 2008).

In 1783 Antoine Lavoisier pioneered in measuring the amount of oxygen that a person takes in during exercise. In his letter to Professor Joseph Black on November 13, 1790, he called oxygen vital air; and nitrogen as azotic gas or morphette. He demonstrated that animals can live in pure oxygen or vital air provided that carbonic acid (or fixed air, now carbon dioxide) is removed and that they do not need the presence of nitrogen in the air in order to live (Older 2007).

He gave the name ‘oxygen’ for “dephlogisticated air or respirable air”. Back in 1788, Jean Senebier adopted some of the terms used by Lavoisier, such as hydrogen and oxygen (Egerton 2008). However, Older (2007) argued that it was probably Karl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) in 1771 who discovered oxygen (he called it ‘fire air’), or Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebel (1572-1633) who built a submarine in 1621.

He is likewise referred to frequently as the founder of the science of nutrition presumably as applied to humans and animals. He introduced the use of balance and thermometer in nutrition studies. He discovered that combustion involves oxidation in which oxygen is added to a compound; he demonstrated that the process of respiration combined carbon and hydrogen with oxygen; and that the process generates heat (Maynard et al. 1980).

The contribution of Antoine Lavoisier to chemistry in the 18th century has been described in the following manner: “At the beginning of the century chemistry was alchemy, at the end it was a science”. But, on May 8, 1794, he was sent to the guillotine, a victim of the French Revolution. King Louis XVI himself, whom he served as tax collector, was condemned ahead and guillotined in January 1793. According to Justus von Liebeg (1803-1873), Lavoisier was the greatest single casualty of the ‘La Revolution’ (Older 2007).

(Ben G. Bareja. June 2012)

Note: The list of Literature Cited is in the Mainpage.


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