Stories of the Great Chemists

This panel in a <i>Mujeres Celebres</i> (“Famous Women”) comic calls Curie’s identification of radiation as an atomic property “the start of a new scientific era.”

This panel in a Mujeres Celebres (“Famous Women”) comic calls Curie’s identification of radiation as an atomic property “the start of a new scientific era.” (Othmer Library of Chemical History, CHF)

Perhaps to soften the cover’s execution scene as well as to establish how the world at large recognized the injustice of Lavoisier’s death, his story opens in the modern era. Several pages recount the true story of an American chemist traveling to Paris early in the 20th century to collaborate with local scientists, and in his spare time to enjoy the monuments honoring Lavoisier. To his surprise a French passenger in the train car does not even recognize the chemist’s name. And in Paris the American is shocked to find no statues of Lavoisier anywhere. His concern sets in motion an international campaign to raise money for a memorial. On the next page we see donations pouring in from Germany, Italy, America, Belgium, England, and Austria. Schoolchildren in “all the countries” join in to help, and the monument becomes a reality “with money from the whole civilized world.”

The story then cuts back to Lavoisier’s time. Although his innovative work has been recognized, Lavoisier cannot support himself through teaching. A friend seeks patronage on his behalf, and the king appoints Lavoisier collector general of taxes. Lavoisier serves the government well, and among other changes nullifies a special tax levied on Jews.

In 1775 the government makes Lavoisier the tax commissioner for salt and gunpowder. As the text explains in Spanish, “The chemist Lavoisier organized and directed important studies to improve the manufacture of gunpowder. These advances were definitive and have effects even to our own day.”

The next sequence of panels depicts Lavoisier’s theory of the conservation of mass, with the caption declaring, “His method was so logical that reading a few pages sufficed for understanding the foundations of the science.” Lavoisier first shares his great discovery with a colleague: “Listen to this! No material can be destroyed or created; it can only be transformed.” He then proclaims it in a crowded lecture hall: “Matter can be changed in form, but never in weight or mass.”

Lavoisier’s discoveries begin to revolutionize science, especially the discovery of oxygen. He willingly shares the credit with his codiscoverer, Englishman Joseph Priestley, and declares in the spirit of the Enlightenment, “Science does not belong to one man or to one country.” After decomposing and synthesizing numerous compounds Lavoisier tells another crowded auditorium: “Using this theory we can decompose such compounds as water, carbonic acid, and other organic materials.”

The story eventually turns away from science and devotes its closing five pages to the revolutionary uprising, attacks on government, and Lavoisier’s execution—for his administrative role on behalf of the royal government—by the command of the people’s tribunal. The fall of the guillotine announced on the cover takes place out of sight. Lavoisier’s close friend, mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, is seen murmuring to himself, “A few seconds are enough to cut off this head, but even a hundred years may not produce another one equal to it.”

The Nobel laureate chemist Marie Curie looks like a movie star on the cover of Mujeres Célebres. The comic opens with illustrations of her laborious experiments, extracting minute amounts of uranium from large quantities of pitchblende ore, ultimately leading to the discovery of the element radium and a demonstration of its properties. Readers not only learn her maiden name, Sklodowska, but that “she was an exemplary woman in every sense of the word, a self-sacrificing wife, a loving mother, dedicating her life to science, and bequeathing to humanity the fruit of her labors.”

Much of the storyline relates the difficulties she faced as a woman, first in getting a scientific education and later in finding scientific employment. It also details her courtship and marriage to Pierre Curie, with whom she collaborated. Some of the best pages illustrate her painstaking work with pitchblende ore, including a sample of the powerful element she isolated. She and her husband discuss their work instructively:

“There is no doubt, Pierre, the rays of uranium have the power of ionization.”

“Yes, they convert the air into a conductor of electricity.”

“Pierre, what if radiation is an inherent property of certain kinds of atoms and not a result of molecular activity?”

The Curies make the first of their many remarkable discoveries: uranium is an inherently radioactive material. Besides radium the research also produces another new element—thorium. The caption proclaims, “At this moment, Marie set off a new era in science.”