Lavoisier Devises the Modern System of Chemical Nomenclature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As an important part of the chemical revolution he fathered, Lavoisier, collaborating with other French scientists, devised a rational system of chemical nomenclature in which each substance’s name reflected its chemical composition.

Summary of Event

Before Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his collaborators created a rational system of chemical nomenclature, a variety of methods existed for naming chemical substances, resulting in a very confused set of names. For some chemical substances, alchemical names were still in use, and often these bore no relationship to the actual makeup of the material. For example, “powder of Algaroth” was actually a compound of antimony and chlorine. Previous chemists had named some substances after persons (Glauber’s salt) and others after a place (Epsom salt). “Oil of vitriol” was named after its appearance, since sulfuric acid was an oily liquid. Sometimes the very same substance had multiple names: Quicksilver and hydrargyrum were both designations for mercury. “Sugar of lead” (lead acetate) was named for its effect on the senses, since it tasted sweet, but it was also very poisonous, revealing the danger in some of these confusing names. [kw]Lavoisier Devises the Modern System of Chemical Nomenclature (1786-1787) [kw]Nomenclature, Lavoisier Devises the Modern System of Chemical (1786-1787) [kw]Chemical Nomenclature, Lavoisier Devises the Modern System of (1786-1787) [kw]System of Chemical Nomenclature, Lavoisier Devises the Modern (1786-1787) [kw]Devises the Modern System of Chemical Nomenclature, Lavoisier (1786-1787) Chemical nomenclature [g]France;1786-1787: Lavoisier Devises the Modern System of Chemical Nomenclature[2660] [c]Chemistry;1786-1787: Lavoisier Devises the Modern System of Chemical Nomenclature[2660] [c]Science and technology;1786-1787: Lavoisier Devises the Modern System of Chemical Nomenclature[2660] Lavoisier, Antoine-Laurent Guyton de Morveau, Louis Bernard Berthollet, Claude Louis Fourcroy, Antoine François de

Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau became concerned about the contradictions and confusions in traditional chemical nomenclature, and in 1782 he wrote a paper whose purpose was to propose a new terminology for chemistry. He believed that chemical substances should have names that indicated their constituents. Like Carolus Linnaeus, who had systematized botanical nomenclature using Latin names, Guyton de Morveau felt that new chemical names should be based on Latin or Greek roots, so their meaning could be easily understood. He made many specific suggestions in his paper; for instance, he derived the names of salts from their respective acids, as in vitriol de cuivre (copper sulfate), derived from sulfuric acid. Some of his suggestions found their way into the Encyclopédie of 1786, but his ideas really gained wide recognition when he converted from the phlogiston theory to Lavoisier’s oxygen theory and when he collaborated with Lavoisier, Claude Louis Berthollet, and Antoine François de Fourcroy in a detailed revision of chemical nomenclature.

Beginning in 1786 and continuing through 1787, Lavoisier, Guyton de Morveau, Berthollet, and Fourcroy met almost daily for discussions about their reform of chemical nomenclature. They collected information, consulted with other scientists, and read extensively, including such works as La Logique: Ou, Les Premiers Développmens de l’art de penser (1780; The Logic of Condillac, 1809) by Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, who stressed the connection between clear language and clear thinking. On April 17, 1787, Lavoisier read a paper before the French Academy of Sciences in which he used Guyton de Morveau’s earlier work and Condillac’s ideas in advocating a new language for chemists based on new principles. He wanted a straightforward relationship between the facts and ideas of chemistry and the words in which these facts and ideas were expressed.

By this time in Lavoisier’s career, he had rejected the alchemical theory of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and the phlogiston theory Phlogiston theory of Georg Ernst Stahl (who believed that a weightless fluid called phlogiston was responsible for combustion). Lavoisier held that burning was actually a reaction in which oxygen combined with the combustible substance. Therefore, the “Group of Four” chemists desired not only to reform chemical nomenclature but also to reform chemistry itself. When their Méthode de nomenclature chimique (1787; Method of Chymical Nomenclature, Method of Chymical Nomenclature (Lavoisier et al.) 1788) was published in Paris, they understood that it would most likely be accepted by disciples of their new theory of chemistry and rejected by phlogistonists.

In Method of Chymical Nomenclature, the authors begin by attacking traditional chemical names. They point out that in some cases, one substance had more than ten different names, and even when there was only one name for a substance, its name bore no relationship to its chemical nature. The basic principle of the new nomenclature was that there should be a single name for each chemical substance and that the name should describe its composition in terms of its simple constituents. For example, acids were named for the element from which they were made, as in sulfuric acid from sulfur. Salts made from acids all took the suffix “-ate,” for example, sodium sulfate. Since the new system was so simple to use and its powers of clarification were so great, it was quickly adopted by many French chemists, and later, when Method of Chymical Nomenclature was translated into other languages, by chemists in other countries as well.

In France, Method of Chymical Nomenclature had only a few editions, since two years after its publication its principal methods and ideas were incorporated by Lavoisier into his Traité élémentaire de chimie(1789; Elements of Chemistry, Elements of Chemistry (Lavoisier) 1790), often called the first modern textbook of chemistry. This book, with its new nomenclature and new chemical ideas, became the principal vehicle by which young scientists around the world learned of and often were converted to the new chemistry of Lavoisier.

An illustration from the 1789 French edition of Elements of Chemistry showing the various apparatuses Lavoisier used in his studies of combustion.

(Library of Congress)

The new nomenclature was not enthusiastically received by all groups, even in France. French phlogistonists objected to it, and they had such a strong hold on the French Academy that, though Method of Chymical Nomenclature was approved for publication, its system was not officially adopted. In England, such prominent scientists as Joseph Black expressed disapproval, and as late as 1802, Thomas Thomson, whose textbook of chemistry was highly influential, was very critical of the new chemical names. Nonetheless, with the increasing popularity of Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry, resistance to the new nomenclature declined, though pockets of recalcitrance remained. As late as 1870, the “new” nomenclature was attacked in a French pharmacopoeia. By this time, however, Lavoisier’s ideas and the clear language in which they were expressed had proved their superiority to most of the chemical world.


Some scholars have stated that it is “almost impossible” to exaggerate the importance of the new chemical nomenclature for the progress of chemistry. Other scholars have compared the significance of what Lavoisier did at the end of the eighteenth century to what Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev accomplished in the nineteenth century with his periodic table of elements. Both scientists provided a scheme for classifying elements and compounds, and both schemes were productive of important new chemical discoveries. Just like the periodic table, Lavoisier’s nomenclature became a tool for discovery; for example, when the names of chemical reactants were clearly expressed, the products of the reaction often became obvious.

The reform of chemical nomenclature developed by Lavoisier and his colleagues was inextricably intertwined with his new system of chemistry. Revolutions, be they political or scientific, are disturbing events, and the chemical revolution was no exception. Those who accepted Lavoisier’s oxygen theory saw the significance of his reform of nomenclature. Those chemists who clung to the phlogiston theory regarded his nomenclature as barbaric. Revolutions do not bring about the conversion of all those who believed in the old system. A good example is Joseph Priestley, who ironically went to his grave in 1804 still convinced of the value of the phlogiston theory, despite having discovered oxygen. Both the new nomenclature and Lavoisier’s new system of chemistry were the province of the young, and their numbers kept multiplying through the nineteenth century. With the new generation of chemists came the nearly complete acceptance of Lavoisier’s new names and ideas.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guerlac, Henry. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier: Chemist and Revolutionary. New York: Scribner, 1975. This short biography, which derives from a long article on Lavoisier the author wrote for the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, provides an excellent introduction to Lavoisier’s life and achievements. Illustrated, critical bibliographic guide to both primary and secondary sources, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKie, Douglas. Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer. New York: Da Capo, 1980. This reprint of a work originally published in 1952 offers the general reader a biography of Lavoisier that includes his activities in politics and economics as well as in science. Some have called it the best-written account of Lavoisier’s life in English, but some reviewers were upset by its lack of footnotes and critical documentation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Partington, J. R. A History of Chemistry. Vol. 3. London: Macmillan, 1962. Chapter 9 of this comprehensive history of chemistry is devoted to Lavoisier, with many references to primary and secondary sources in the footnotes. An index of subjects and an index of names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poirier, Jean Pierre. Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. This biography, translated from the 1993 French version, was well received by American chemists, though American historians of science had some criticisms. Nevertheless, the author, who read and absorbed many new manuscript sources, has produced a vivid portrait for the general reader.

Stahl Postulates the Phlogiston Theory

Linnaeus Creates the Binomial System of Classification

Priestley Discovers Oxygen

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