I have just read a letter in Chemistry World (September 2009, p40) by A J Dijkstra, who has just translated the first ever book on lipid chemistry from French into English. This book is Recherches chimiques sur les corps gras d'origine animale, Paris, 1823, by Michel Eugène Chevreul. His long life (1786 – 1889) took him from before the French Revolution to the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower. Chevreul had a long and varied scientific career, as his Wikipedia biography relates.
The focus of Dijkstra’s letter is the several uses to which Chevreul applied melting point analysis. One of these is to establish sample purity, still practised widely today, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, though nowadays it is instrumentalized with the Differential Scanning Calorimeter. But the example quoted is makes one do a double-take.
When Chevreul prepared palmitic acid, he started by saponifying a sample of human fat which he had obtained from a prisoner who had been tortured to death.That sounds, in the worst sense of the word, medieval. Certainly conditions in France were pretty grim at the time, as anyone who has read the biography of the groundbreaking mathematician Evariste Galois (especially the excellent chapter in Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh) will know. Wasn’t there supposed to have been an Enlightenment? And hadn’t execution been automated with the Guillotine?
Perhaps someone can enlighten me regarding the French History. But for those who prefer the science, not only the Wikipedia article referenced above, but his biography and work on the Cyberlipid site, are good reading.