The Story of the Hugh Hefner of Chemistry

Chances are, you’re not like me: you cringe when someone says the word “chemistry.” Your memory of it vaguely harkens back to an undergrad class whose knowledge you flushed once you finished the final. That’s okay — my goal for this series is to change that paradigm, make it understandable to all, and provide some entertainment.

When I think of Hugh Hefner, I think of the prototypical playboy — smoking jacket, lavish parties, and the man to be seen with. I’m also choosing to skip over some of his negative qualities for the sake of analogy. The individual I’ve alluded to for quite some time now exhibited many of those same playboy characteristics, but with the key difference of doing it all in the name of advancing and promoting the scientific discipline of chemistry.

hemistry had just dug out of the dark ages — it was becoming common knowledge that the world was not composed of four elements as was the belief for some 2000 years. Practicing chemists were starting to marry their empirical knowledge with theory, which also hadn’t been the case for quite some time. There was a crap-ton of scientific data and crap-ton of theory to go with it: remember, phlogiston was a thing and it was basically the last remnant of the four element theory. Also, scientific communication was difficult as discussion of findings was largely limited to hyper-elite clubs, so disputes ranged from the validity of data to the names of elements. Someone needed to pull everything together, to build a naming system for chemicals and elements, to validate data and findings, to establish and promote chemistry as an independent discipline, and, most importantly, to get rid of phlogiston once and for all.

That person was the Hugh Hefner of chemistry, more commonly known as Antoine Lavoisier.

Hopefully, it’ll be obvious why I call him the Hugh Hefner of chemistry in a minute, but there are some things to note about his background. First and foremost, he is a Frenchman, which may cause some consternation — not from me, mind you, us Merikans have no real qualm with the French. However, I’ve heard there’s a bit of a rivalry between the French and British, and it may grind some British gears to attribute a Frenchman with what is considered by many to be the start of the chemical revolution.

Second, he was wealthy. While we’ve covered other famous chemists that were wealthy (e.g., Robert Boyle), he used his wealth and status to fund his chemistry addiction. For the other chemists we’ve discussed, chemistry was a sort of side piece that got some action when a wealthy person got all hot and bothered about it. Lavoisier (1743–1794) had rich parents who could afford a great education and exposure to many different scientific communities. He eventually purchased a partnership into a tax-collection firm, which furthered his wealth and was partly responsible for his … interesting death. Additionally, like me, Lavoisier was obsessed with the latest and greatest gadgets, so he could afford the absolute best experimental apparatuses. He was like the Bruce Wayne of chemistry in that regard.

Instead of “What’s you super power?” I’m sure most people asked “Why are you so good at chemistry?”

In December 1771, Lavoisier was married to Marie-Anne Pierette. This was enormously significant for one specific reason: Marie-Anne was the perfect complement to Antoine in that she was the best lab assistant he could have ever asked for. She spoke multiple languages, including English, which meant that she could translate all the latest research. She took all his notes and is attributed for all the accurate drawings of his scientific apparatuses. She even assisted him in his demonstrations (more on this in a minute).

Now, please don’t mistake me for promoting male chauvinism — I am not advancing that despicable line of thought here. In fact, quite the opposite: I am saying that without his wife, Lavoisier would not have had the world-wide impact that he did. In that regard, here’s where he shares a similarity with Hugh Hefner. Undeniably, Hugh Hefner’s fame was partially due to his wives (again, I’m aware of the horrible things that Hefner has been accused of, but I’m trying to draw an analogy in terms of what Hugh was well-known for). The similarities don’t stop there, though…

The man hosted chemistry parties!

That’s right, in the battle to rid the world of phlogiston, Lavoisier decided to win over his contemporaries with alcohol (a word that Lavoisier coined BTW) and demonstrations in his lab. Additionally, his lab was known to host other famous minds like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. I’m nerding out so hard right now, I need a minute…

Okay. I’m good now.

Again, Hugh Hefner hosted numerous celebrity guests (link is slightly NSFW) and politicians over the years — Hef’s parties were the place to see and be seen. Lavoisier’s gatherings must have been similar in terms of popularity in the chemistry community, but they served a more important purpose: they showed fellow chemists in the flesh results of his findings. Lavoisier realized that these live demonstrations would ultimately do more to convince even his worst detractors of the truth. It’s this spirit of the advancement of chemistry that elevated Lavoisier as the bringer of the chemical revolution . . . and the Hugh Hefner of chemistry.

Another shining accomplishment of Lavoisier was his overhaul of the language of chemistry. As William Brock said, “a modern chemist, on looking at a chemical treatise published before Lavoisier’s time, would find it largely incomprehensible; but everything written by Lavoisier himself, or composed a few years after his death, would cause a modern reader little difficulty.” That’s a very British way of saying chemical writings before Lavoisier = gibberish; after Lavoisier = awesome. You’ve seen some of the terms chemists used in previous discussions (e.g., “calx of mercury”); Lavoisier invented and utilized a new system that was based on the elemental composition of the substance (e.g., “mercury oxide” instead of “calx of mercury”). Also gone were those weird names from antiquity like “oil of vitriol” — the name Lavoisier ascribed to the substance according to his naming rules is the name we use today: sulfuric acid.

Speaking of elements, Lavoisier was the first to push a formal definition of them, which still exists today, and made an attempt at grouping them together — a first wag at a periodic table. Despite its utility and simplicity, since his naming system relied on elements that weren’t the classic four elements, it was not a big hit with the phlogistonists. Unfortunately for Lavoisier, the phloggies also had editorial control of his local peer-reviewed journal and wouldn’t accept any of his research for publication, so what did he do?

He said “IT DOESN’T MATTER” and created his own damn journal!

And it still exists today under roughly the same name. Take that phloggies!

Lavoisier’s death was also noteworthy in that he died in very public beheading via guillotine. Alas, Lavoisier lived in France during a particularly tumultuous time, i.e., the French Revolution. Because of his involvement with the tax-collecting firm, Lavoisier was seen as part of the ‘corrupt establishment’ and was sentenced to death despite his generational contribution to science. His wife continued his legacy (the parties, etc.) as much as she could, but the lifetime of work that Lavoisier had devoted to chemistry would never be matched by anyone else again. As for his absolute destruction of phlogiston, we’ll save that for next time.

Works Consulted:

Brock, William H. The Chemical Tree: A History of Chemistry. New York: Norton and Co, 2000.

Ihde, Aaron J. The Development of Modern Chemistry. New York: Dover Publications, 1984.

The Hugh Hefner of Chemistry himself

I’m a former chemistry assistant prof that is out to prove that chemistry is both interesting and entertaining

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