Purchased in 1962 through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas H. Noyes and Mr. and Mrs. Spencer T. Olin, the Lavoisier Collection is the largest collection outside of France on chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), commonly considered to be the founder of modern chemistry. Consisting of nearly 2,000 volumes, and 31 linear feet of manuscript and graphic materials, the collection provides insight into a crucial moment in both the history of science and the history of France, for Lavoisier was both a major scientist and an important government administrator who served during the French Revolution and ultimately fell victim to the Reign of Terror.
The collection documents all aspects of Lavoisier’s career, most notably his crucial work in areas such as the discovery of oxygen and the development of modern chemical nomenclature. Included among the manuscripts are laboratory notes from his dramatic experiments on the decomposition and recomposition of water, which helped to demonstrate the existence of oxygen and its role in chemical reactions. Also documented are his involvement in France’s Academy of Sciences and his correspondence with other scientists of the day, including Baumé, Berthollet, Chaptal, Fourcroy, Lagrange, Monge, and Joseph Black. Included are Lavoisier’s own copy of the first edition of his Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789), as well as multiple drafts of the plates drawn and engraved for this seminal work by Lavoisier’s wife, Marie-Anne-Pierrette Lavoisier (1758-1836). Administrative documents in the collection chronicle Lavoisier’s involvement in the Régie des poudres et salpêtres, the hated Ferme générale which administered tax collection, and a commission to evaluate the validity of Anton Mesmer’s work.
Beyond what it reveals about Lavoisier’s career, the collection includes 600 volumes from the Lavoisiers’ personal library which reflect the tastes of the enlightened French middle class at that time, including literary, historical, and musical works. A good number of the collection’s books and manuscripts document the life of Marie-Anne-Pierrette Lavoisier, a talented pupil of Jacques-Louis David who both illustrated her husband’s works and translated others’ scientific work into French so he could read it. Family letters and personal artifacts add depth to the collection’s portrait of this remarkable couple.