This post was written by Michelle Farias, intern in the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. For more in this series, see previous posts about Edward Jenner and Joseph Jerome Le Francais de Lalande by Morgan E. Aronson.
The five portraits collected by Bern Dibner that feature Antoine-François, comte de Fourcroy, show the chemist in two distinct periods of his life. While the portraits are not dated, two of them are clearly of a younger man, pictured with his dark hair curling over the top of his head. The remaining three, all bearing the same image of Fourcroy, show a man whose hairline has receded and who looks physically older and well attired. As evidenced by the passing of time between the two sets of portraits, in the span of a life that lasted only 54 years, Fourcroy was able to establish and maintain a prominent role in the French scientific community and greater French society.
Born in Paris on June 15, 1755, 262 years ago to this day, Fourcroy was the son of an apothecary from a noble family that had declined in the years before his birth. After leaving school at the age of 15, he found work in an office where he may have been inclined to stay were it not for an encounter with the anatomist Félix Vicq-d’Azyr (1748–1794). Shortly after their meeting, Fourcroy began to study medicine at the Paris Faculty of Medicine with financial aid from the members of the Société Royale de Médecine, of which Vicq-d’Azyr was the secretary. He successfully completed his medical degree in 1780, but rather than pursue a career as a doctor, Fourcroy turned his attention to chemistry.
In the late eighteenth century, the field of chemistry was undergoing a period of rapid change that Fourcroy himself described as a “great revolution.” Fourcroy’s role in this chemical revolution was primarily as an educator. From his graduation in 1780 until the early 1790s he gave a course of seventy lectures in his own laboratory, the first of which were published as Leçons élémentaires d’histoire naturelle et de chimie (Paris, 1782). A common theme in all his lectures was the relationship between chemistry and natural history and their application to medicine. He received his first public appointment as chemistry professor at the École Royale Vétérinaire, at Alfort, in 1783, which lasted until 1787, while also succeeding P.J. Macquer (1718–1784) in 1784 as chair of chemistry at the Jardin du Roi where he lectured every summer to large audiences who appreciated his impressive ability to lecture adeptly on such a rapidly changing subject. In 1785 he was elected to the Académie Royale des Sciences where he came into contact with some of the most important scientific minds in France of his time.
One of the most influential leaders of the chemical revolution of the late eighteenth century was Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794) whose anti-phlogistic theory of the role of oxygen in combustion and adherence to quantitative over qualitative methods were some of the major shifts in the field of chemistry that marked this period. As evidence of these shifts, Fourcroy himself spent a few years teaching his students both the phlogistic theory that prevailed at the time (that there was a combustible element called phlogiston contained within combustible bodies that was released upon combustion) and Lavoisier’s radical new anti-phlogistic theory (that combustion requires a gas that has mass such as oxygen) before being won over by Lavoisier in 1786. Most of his second edition of published lectures, retitled Élémens d’historie naturelle et de chimie (Paris, 1786), was written before 1786 so he announced his conversion to the new way of thinking in a specially written introduction. His Principes de chimie (Paris, 1787) was the first textbook written entirely according to the anti-phlogistic theory.
In 1787 Lavoisier collaborated with Fourcroy and two other chemists who had been converted to his theory, Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau (1737-1816) and Claude-Louis Berthollet (1748-1822), on a plan to reform chemical nomenclature, published as Méthode de nomenclature chimique (Paris, 1787). Fourcroy was the youngest of the four men, at age 32, and his contribution to the work was primarily an explanation of the table of nomenclature included in it. Fourcroy’s explanation of the group’s goal, as quoted from an English translation by James St. John published in 1788, was to “select in several classes of compounds, a considerable number of well-chosen examples, so as to enable all persons, by the assistance of a simple and easy study, to apply our method of naming to all the compositions known in the science, or to such as may be discovered in the future.” It was a plan for the standardization of chemical nomenclature that would extend even to future discoveries within the field. The work was quickly translated and spread throughout the scientific community, aided by the third edition of Fourcroy’s lectures, which expounded on the importance of a standardized chemical nomenclature and were also translated widely.
Accompanying this period of scientific revolution was the political upheaval of the French Revolution, which began in 1789. Fourcroy had some involvement with the electing of new officials, but he professed a desire to remain a scientist rather than become an elected official himself. Nevertheless, he was elected as an alternate in 1792 and was called to take his seat in the Convention on July 22, 1793, after the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793). Fourcroy became a member of the Committee of Public Instruction of the Convention and was more involved in his new role than his earlier reluctance would have suggested. As a member of the Convention, Fourcroy supported policies that suppressed the academies and expelled counterrevolutionaries from their ranks with the belief that he could organize commissions of scientists to continue the most important work on their own. His goal was reportedly not to suppress the academics themselves, but in the existing political climate, it was difficult for these commissions to actually accomplish much.
In 1793, his frequent collaborator Lavoisier was arrested and on May 8, 1794 he was tried and executed. There is some evidence that Fourcroy made an appeal to Robespierre on Lavoisier’s behalf, but if so, he was unsuccessful. Fortunately for Fourcroy, he maintained his place in society through the Revolution and in 1799, Napoleon appointed Fourcroy to the council of state, where he was able to continue his scientific work as a councillor and work on the proposal of a new educational system for France. In 1808 Fourcroy was made a count of the empire and he died the following year, in good standing, on December 16, 1809.
Fourcroy’s story is defined by two revolutions, one scientific and the other political, both of which elevated his status and preserved his name through his life and to today.
For a full list of works by Fourcroy held by the Smithsonian Libraries, visit our catalog here. His published books and manuscript materials can be viewed by appointment at the Dibner Library. This blog post contains portraits of Fourcroy and Lavoisier; to view the rest of the portrait collection, visit Scientific Identity.
Beretta, Marco. The Enlightenment of Matter: The Definition of Chemistry from Agricola to Lavoisier. Canton, MA: Science History Publications/USA, 1993.
Crosland, Maurice P. Historical studies in the language of chemistry. London: Heinemann, 1962.
Gillispie, Charles Couston, ed. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Scribner, 1970-1980.
Morveau, Guyton de, Lavoisier, Betholet, and de Fourcroy. Méthode de nomenclature chimique. Paris: Chez Cuchet, librairie, 1787.
St. John, James, trans. Method of chymical nomenclature. London: Printed for G. Kearsley, 1788.