Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Louis Nicolas Vauquelin and Louis Jacques Thénard

You will recall that our study of St. Albert began with my wondering whether we might expect to find a saint mentioned in that famous and most important reference work, the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. Today, I must extend my question, and ask whether there might be any other Catholics mentioned there. In my reading of Father Kneller's fascinating study of scientists of the 1800s who were Christians, I found that there are two others, responsible for three elements: chromium, beryllium, and boron.

I will give Fr. Kneller's full report, although it is a bit sparse for Vauquelin, and the Catholic Encyclopedia does not have much either, but it is well worth reading. (Someday perhaps I will find biographies of them, though I expect they will be in French.)
Louis Nicolas Vauquelin (1763-1829) is the chemist to whom chemistry owes its first knowledge of chromium and glucinium. [This is the element now known as beryllium; it was called originally called glucinium, from the Greek root for sweet - as its compounds have a sweet taste.] Vauquelin died a faithful Catholic, striken down during a visit to his native place.

There presented himself one day to Vauquelin a youth, some sixteen years of age, of countrified aspect and an accent far from Parisian. He came to beg the chemist to engage him as his servant asking no salary save to be present at his laboratory experiments. The old savant was far from rich, and, being lath to add a fresh burden to the so francs a month which he spent on his laboratory, refused the lad's request. Vauquelin's sister however interposed; he was a promising boy, she said, and would not, like the other assistants, "let the pots boil over". Vauquelin at last gave way, and the young peasant not only took excellent care of the "pots", but grounded himself profoundly in Chemistry, and came in time to be a famous teacher and discoverer. In 1804 he succeeded Vauquelin at the Collège de France, and in To he was elected to the Academy of Sciences. He celebrated his election by a visit to his mother, to whom he brought an edition of Thomas à Kempis in the large print which her old eyes had long desired. He rose higher, becoming in 1814 a Knight, in 1842 Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, in 1825 Baron, in 1827 Deputy, and in 1832 a Peer of France; in 1861 a statue was erected to him at Sens, and in 1865 the people of his native place La Louptière asked and obtained permission to call their town La Louptière-Thénard in his honour. For the peasant lad was no other than Louis Jacques Thénard (1777-1857), discoverer of the superoxide of hydrogen, of the blue dye called after him, and now so widely used in the manufacture of porcelain, and of many other chemical facts. He contributed to the progress of Chemistry not only as a discoverer but also as a teacher, and his text-book, although of such an immense range, reached ten editions in six years. He could without any exaggeration boast that during his thirty years at the Sorbonne, the College of France, and the Polytechnic School, 40,000 students had passed through his hands. In matters of education he was among the first authorities of his day, a veritable "Marshal of Science".
Thénard was an unwavering Catholic, loyal and punctilious all through life in the discharge of his religious duties. Some extracts from the funeral sermon preached over him by the rector of St. Sulpice may aptly be quoted:
"Religion and gratitude alike constrain me to say that there was in Baron Thénard something greater still than that sublime intellect and boundless knowledge which shed such lustre on the Academy. There was a heart, profoundly Christian, armed alike against that disregard of God and eternity... against that vague religiosity which is in essence a mere chimera, and against the allurement of fame which as he said, had once held him captive but now showed itself to his disillusioned mind as a vain and baseless dream.... He submitted his intellect to the dogmas of the Church, as he submitted his will to her precepts; every Sunday he came here, a simple unit of the congregation, and on all our great feasts he reverently communicated.... Never did I make an appeal to him on behalf of the poor and miserable but he responded, graciously and generously; many a time, indeed, he did not wait for my appeal, his delicacy anticipated it.... Never did a Sister of St. Vincent de Paul, a Sister of Charity knock at his door in vain.... Many were the poor whom he secretly succoured.... In losing Baron Thénard, I say once again, I have lost one of the best friends of my poor."

[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]
Just before I posted this, I checked another reference, Nature's Building Blocks (by John Emsley) and I learned that Vauquelin was given a sample mineral for analysis by another Catholic, the French mineralogist (and priest!) Abbé René-Just Haüy, about whom we shall hear in a future posting.

Here are the links to the Catholic Encyclopedia for Vauquelin and for Thénard.


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