Philip Ball tells the story of Madame Lavoisier; translator of oxygen. At a time when science was almost a closed book to women, Madame Marie Anne Lavoisier’s skills were indispensable. A translator, illustrator and critic of scientific papers, she learnt chemistry herself and helped her husband Antoine Lavoisier develop his theory of the role played by oxygen in combustion. As modern science was taking shape it lacked any universal language, so communication in many tongues was vital to stay ahead of the game. Even today there is debate as to who can really be considered the discoverer of oxygen, but Madame Lavoisier’s gift for translation helped her husband compete against English rivals and banish their theories. Come the French Revolution however, Anton was branded a traitor to the state and sentenced to death. By a cruel twist of fate Marie lost both husband and father to the guillotine on the same day.
Philip Ball talks to Patricia Fara at the University of Cambridge, about the largely unrecognised contribution that women like Marie Anne Lavoisier made to the early days of modern science, and to Michael Gordin of Princeton University about the importance of scientific translation in the past and how it features today,
Picture: French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Credit: Getty Images
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