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Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac

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Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac
Joseph Louis Gay

6 December 1778 (1778-12-06)
Died9 May 1850(1850-05-09) (aged 71)
Alma materÉcole polytechnique
Known forGay-Lussac's law
Degrees Gay-Lussac
Co-discovery of boron
Combustion analysis
AwardsPour le Mérite (1842)
ForMemRS (1815)
Scientific career

Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (UK: /ɡˈlsæk/,[1][2] US: /ˌɡləˈsæk/,[3][4] French: [ʒɔzɛf lwi ɡɛlysak]; 6 December 1778 – 9 May 1850) was a French chemist and physicist. He is known mostly for his discovery that water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen by volume (with Alexander von Humboldt), for two laws related to gases, and for his work on alcohol–water mixtures, which led to the degrees Gay-Lussac used to measure alcoholic beverages in many countries.


Gay-Lussac by David d'Angers, 1830s

Gay-Lussac was born at Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat in the present-day department of Haute-Vienne.[5]

His father, Anthony Gay, son of a doctor, was a lawyer and prosecutor and worked as a judge in Noblat Bridge.[6] Father of two sons and three daughters, he owned much of the Lussac village and began to add the name of this hamlet to his name, following a custom of the Ancien Régime. Towards the year 1803, father and son formally adopted the name Gay-Lussac.[7] During the Revolution, under the Law of Suspects, his father, former king's attorney, was imprisoned in Saint Léonard from 1793 to 1794.

Gay-Lussac received his early education at the hands of the Catholic Abbey of Bourdeix.[8] In the care of the Abbot of Dumonteil, he began his education in Paris, finally entering the École Polytechnique in 1798.

Three years later, Gay-Lussac transferred to the École des Ponts et Chaussées, and shortly afterward was assigned to C. L. Berthollet as his assistant. In 1804 he was appointed répétiteur (demonstrator) to Antoine François Fourcroy at the École Polytechnique, whom he succeeded in 1809 as professor of chemistry. From 1809 to 1832, he was also the professor of physics at the Sorbonne, a post which he only resigned for the chair of chemistry at the Jardin des Plantes. In 1821, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1831 he was elected to represent Haute-Vienne in the chamber of deputies, and in 1839 he entered the chamber of peers. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1832.[9]

Gay-Lussac married Geneviève-Marie-Joseph Rojot in 1809. He had first met her when she worked as a linen draper's shop assistant; he noticed she was studying a chemistry textbook under the counter, which led to their acquaintance. The couple had five children, of whom the eldest (Jules) became a student of Justus Liebig in Giessen. Some publications by Jules are mistaken as his father's today since they share the same first initial (J. Gay-Lussac).

Gay-Lussac had a reputation as one of the greatest European scientists of his day, well justified by his innumerable discoveries in both chemistry and physics. The restored royalty made him a Peer of France, although he worked politically with the anti-clerical party. He was closely associated with François Arago.

Gay-Lussac died in Paris, and his grave is there at Père Lachaise Cemetery. His name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.


Gay-Lussac and Biot ascend in a hydrogen balloon, 1804. Illustration from the late 19th century.
  • 1802 – Gay-Lussac first published the law that at constant pressure, the volume of any gas increases in proportion to its absolute temperature. Since in his paper announcing the law he cited earlier unpublished work on this subject by Jacques Charles, the law is usually called Charles's Law, though some sources use the expression Gay-Lussac's Law. This law was independently and nearly simultaneously stated by John Dalton.
  • 1804 – He and Jean-Baptiste Biot made a hydrogen-balloon ascent; a second ascent the same year by Gay-Lussac alone attained a height of 7,016 metres (23,018 ft) in an early investigation of the Earth's atmosphere. He wanted to collect air samples at different heights to record differences in temperature and moisture.
  • 1805 – Together with his friend and scientific collaborator Alexander von Humboldt, he discovered that the composition of the atmosphere does not change with decreasing pressure (increasing altitude). They also discovered that water is formed by two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen (by volume).
  • 1808 – He was the co-discoverer of boron.
  • 1808 – Discovery and announcement of the law of combining volumes of gases; published in 1809.
  • 1810 – In collaboration with Louis Jacques Thénard, he developed a method for quantitative elemental organic combustion analysis by measuring the CO2 and H2O evolved when an organic compound is fully oxidized by potassium chlorate. He also summarised the equation of alcoholic fermentation.
  • 1811 – He recognized iodine as a new element, described its properties, and suggested the name iode.[10]
  • 1815 – He synthesized cyanogen, determined its empirical formula, and named it.
  • 1824 – He developed an improved version of the burette that included a side arm, and coined the terms "pipette" and "burette" in an 1824 paper about the standardization of indigo solutions.[11]
Engraving of Gay-Lussac (1824)

Awards and honors[edit]

  • Along with Thénard, Gay Lussac received 30,000 francs from Napoleon in the third edition of the Galvanism Prize in 1809 for their research.
  • In Paris, a street and a hotel near the Sorbonne are named after him as are a square and a street in his birthplace, Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat.
  • In Australia, the "Gay-Lussac Room" at AB Mauri STC, Sydney, was named after him in honor of his work with yeast fermentation.

Academic lineage[edit]

Gravesite of Gay-Lussac
Academic genealogy
Notable teachers Notable students


  • Chemistry courses of the École Polytechnique, Vol.1&2
  • Lessons of Physics, Faculty of Sciences in Paris, (November 6, 1827, March 18, 1828)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Gay-Lussac". Collins English Dictionary. HarperCollins. Retrieved 6 August 2019.
  2. ^ "Gay-Lussac's law". Lexico UK English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 2021-05-11.
  3. ^ "Gay-Lussac". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  4. ^ "Gay-Lussac". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Retrieved 6 August 2019.
  5. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Gay-Lussac, Joseph Louis" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 11 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 542.
  6. ^ Biographical Dictionary Ancient and Modern, Volume 16, Michaud
  7. ^ Biographical sketch by Gay de Vernon
  8. ^ "December 6: Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac". Freethought Almanac. Retrieved 2016-02-04.
  9. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter G" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 8 September 2016.
  10. ^ Ede, A. (2006). The Chemical Element: A Historical Perspective. Greenwood Press. p. 133. ISBN 0-313-33304-1.
  11. ^ Rosenfeld, L. (1999). Four Centuries of Clinical Chemistry. CRC Press. pp. 72–75. ISBN 90-5699-645-2.

Further reading[edit]