Antoine Lavoisier isn't only known as the Father of Nutrition but also the Father of Chemistry. He was a fantastic scientist whose studies affected many diverse fields in the last half of the 18th century. But he's best known for his work with oxygen theory. He showed the connection between combustion, respiration, and oxidation with oxygen theory.
Here, we will discuss Antoine Lavoisier's life, how his oxygen theory affects nutrition, and how his method of funding scientific research led to his death.
Antoine Lavoisier's Early Life and Education
Antoine Lavoisier was born in Paris in 1743. His father was a lawyer that served in the Parliament of Paris. His mother was from a wealthy family of the merchant class.
Between the age of 11 and 18, he attended the Collège des Quatre-Nations at the University of Paris. He then followed in his father's footsteps by attending law school. While studying law, he spent much of his time on his hobby — science.
He finished law school in only two years and obtained his license to practice law in 1764. It was also in 1764 that he published his first scientific paper. He never practiced law, choosing a career in science instead. In 1769, the elite French Academy of Sciences invited him to join. Little did he know, but at only 26, his life was more than half over.
In 1772, Lavoisier embarked on the research that would frame his most significant achievement — the connection between combustion and oxygen. When he began his research, the phlogiston theory was prominent. Phlogiston was an undetectable material given off during combustion that sometimes-had negative mass. Hopefully, modern ideas involving opposing groups aren't as far off as this early theory.
Metabolism and Combustion Are the Same Process
Metabolism and combustion are processes that are often considered separate from one another. However, they are the same process. Both involve the use of oxygen to break down molecules and release energy.
One example of how we use combustion in everyday life is burning fossil fuels to power our homes and vehicles. The explosion of fossil fuels releases energy that can heat our homes or run our engines. The energy released from burning fossil fuels comes from the oxygen in the air that reacts with the molecules in power.
Our respiratory system extracts oxygen from the air. Metabolism occurs when this oxygen combines with the chemicals in our food. Just as fossil fuel combustion releases energy to drive engines, metabolism provides energy to support our bodies.
Oxygen is the common denominator between fossil fuel combustion and animal metabolism. The difference is the matter that's used to produce the energy. With fossil fuel combustion, the fuel may be oil, gas, or coal. With animal metabolism, the power is food. Both combustion and metabolism produce exhaust chemicals. The primary exhaust for both is carbon dioxide — a molecule of one carbon atom to two oxygen atoms.
The energy-producing reaction in both combustion and metabolism gives off heat. With combustion, it's like a flame. With metabolism, it's through body temperature.
The macronutrients in food that fuel most of our energy are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. And what are these substances made from? They are predominantly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. With fossil fuels, the primary elements are hydrocarbons — hydrogen and carbon.
Lavoisier Discovered the Connection Between Combustion/Metabolism and "Calcination"
Calcination was an 18th-century term for the reduction of metals into powder. A typical version of calcination is rust. We now know rust occurs when iron mixes with oxygen and moisture. Rust is the combination of iron, oxygen, and hydrogen. Hydrogen comes from humidity as it's one of the elements that make up water. If oxygen and water have such a corrosive effect on iron, what does it do to our bodies?
It turns out that oxidation in our bodies causes deterioration, similar to how it does with iron. You've heard of the term’s free radicals and antioxidants. Antioxidants bind to your cells and prevent oxidation damage. In essence, antioxidants keep your body from rusting.
Modern nutrition research has discovered thousands of antioxidant compounds. Some of the most common antioxidants include:
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A / Beta-carotene
- Coenzyme Q-10
Serving as antioxidants is one way these micronutrients benefit your body. Some people use nutritional supplements to increase their antioxidant consumption. But nutritionists recommend eating the right foods as the best sources of vitamins and antioxidants.
Lavoisier's Ice-Calorimeter Shows Heat Emissions During Combustion and Respiration
Antoine Lavoisier created a three-chambered container he called the ice calorimeter. The innermost chamber contained the heat source. The middle section held a carefully measured amount of ice for the heat source to melt. The outer chamber had snow to act as insulation. The insulation was to prevent external heat sources from affecting the melting rate of the ice.
In one experiment, he places burning charcoal into the inner chamber. In another, he put a guinea pig inside. A connected sleeve collected the air given off from combustion or respiration. Both processes produced air. Further experiments showed that increased energy consumption required increased oxygen.
Today, we count calories (units of energy) within the food. The more we eat, the more fuel we have available for energy production through metabolism. Our bodies store unused energy (calories) as fat.
By showing that metabolism is essentially combustion on the cellular level, Lavoisier showed how bodies convert food into energy. By showing oxygen's corrosive effects with rust and free radicals, we now understand how antioxidants help us.
Lavoisier's Method of Funding His Scientific Research Also Led to His Death
Lavoisier's scientific research could have been more profitable, so he needed a source of income. His investment in the Ferme Générale (tax farmers) provided the money he needed but also led to his death. These tax farmers were private tax collectors for the French government.
The French Revolution did not differ from other revolutions throughout history because the revolutionaries didn't hold tax collectors in high regard. In 1794, radicals executed the Father of Nutrition by guillotine. The judge said, "The Republic does not need geniuses." It is said that less than three months later, a new regime executed this same judge by guillotine.
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