Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2191
Article abstract: As a philosopher of science, brilliant chemist, and president of the Royal Society, Davy advanced the cause of science as few men had before him. He identified the chemical elements barium, chlorine, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and strontium; pioneered anesthesiology with his experiments with nitrous oxide; invented the Davy lamp to save miners from the perils of explosions; made significant contributions to the application of science for the betterment of society in fields such as agricultural chemistry and tanning; and wrote widely read books on philosophy, flyfishing, and travel.
Humphry Davy, born on December 17, 1778, in the remote town of Penzance in Cornwall, England, was the eldest of five children. Grace Millet Davy, his mother, was an orphaned child of a middle-class family. Robert Davy, his father, was a woodcarver who was of yeoman stock. He was an industrious, though not very successful businessman, who tried farming and who speculated in tin mining.
For the eighteenth century an unusual amount of detail is available on the future scientist’s childhood. He was an active, healthy, and precocious child, who walked at nine months and spoke fluently at two years of age. This sweet, affectionate child was the family favorite. Even before he could read, which was at age five, he was reciting from The Pilgrim’s Progress. At six, he went to school, which was a disappointment. Years later, he wrote, that “learning is naturally a true pleasure,” but that even the best school he went to made it painful. Davy considered it fortunate that his teachers generally left him alone and declared that “what I am I made myself.” Though he left a grant to the school in his will, it was on the condition that the children be given a day off every year.
Robert Davy died in 1794, saddling his widow with a large debt as a result of his mining adventures. She supported her family by opening a millinery store until she received a small inheritance in 1799.
The twin crises of Humphry’s childhood were the move of his family to a farm when he was six and the death of his father when he was fifteen. For the sake of his education, young Humphry lived in Penzance with the old surgeon and apothecary (pharmacist), who had reared his orphaned mother, and only saw his family on weekends. The lonely boy suffered from nightmares and sleepwalking and was terrified by ghost stories and tales of the French Revolution. He learned to amuse and frighten other boys by telling stories of faraway places based mainly on The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. He also loved to hunt and to fish and became passionately devoted to nature.
The death of his father changed Davy’s life. He was determined to help his mother, by making something of himself. He set himself an extraordinarily ambitious program of self-study and actually accomplished much of his plan. Though soon apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary, he was determined to prove his genius. Shortly after reading his first chemistry book, he wrote an article on heat and light that so impressed Dr. Thomas Beddoes of Clifton that nineteen-year-old Davy was invited to become superintendent to the Pneumatic Institution, where Beddoes was experimenting with the use of gases in medical treatment. Typically, the remainder of his five-year indentureship was waived as he took a crucial step toward scientific fame.
In his several years in Clifton, Davy carried out some extremely dangerous and important experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). His friends William Coleridge, Peter Roget, and Robert Southey were among the guinea pigs for his experiments. The most dangerous ones he saved for himself. The laughing gas experiments almost killed him and may have caused long-term damage to his health. He recommended that the gas be applied as an anesthesia for certain surgical procedures. Unfortunately, it would be half a century before nitrous oxide would be used to save lives in that way.
Davy’s attention turned to the area of electrochemistry, which was made possible by the invention of the voltaic pile. He used electrical power to conduct experiments, isolate elements, and invent the carbon arc. In 1801, Davy was appointed lecturer at the Royal Institution and was made professor of chemistry the following year. This “boy wonder” had achieved the amazing feat of gaining a professorship five years after reading his first chemistry book. His previous plan of studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh and the idea of becoming a physician seems to have gradually fallen by the wayside.
Portraits and descriptions of Davy reveal that he was of medium height with a slight build, hazel eyes, and an aquiline nose. He had a lifelong boyish quality that caused him to appear younger than his years. He was lively and enthusiastic in manner and sometimes careless in his dress. The intensity of his eyes and the power of his intellect were remarked upon by his contemporaries.
Davy brought an amazing amount of energy to his scientific endeavors and typically made most of his discoveries in a short period of time as he sought proof for his intuitive flashes of insight. He was not the stereotypical prodding type of scientist who generalized only after examining all the facts. He was a passionate and poetic man. As he aged, however, his tendency toward irritability, mood swings, and vanity increased. Coleridge’s fear, expressed when Davy was age twenty-five, that he would succumb to the vice of “ambition into vanity,” was justified by both the snobbery and the narcissistic self-involvement that became apparent after his knighthood and marriage in 1812.
Davy’s life was devoted to the understanding and popularization of nature. At the Royal Institution, he threw himself into laboratory research, lecturing, and editing. He gave courses on subjects such as applied chemistry, galvinism, “pneumatic chemistry,” and tanning. Unlike many scientists, he considered his public lectures to be of great importance and carefully rehearsed them.
He attained celebrity status, since as many as a thousand people flocked to hear his extraordinary mixture of chemistry, latest research findings, poetry, and philosophy. They listened raptly to subjects as mundane as the chemical composition of organic fertilizers. His yearly Bakerian Lecturers to the Royal Society, from 1807 to 1812, brought him international fame. The Napoleon Prize was awarded to him by the Institute of France. In 1813, while England was still at war with France, he traveled to Paris to receive this award.
Davy, who was always eager to tackle the problems of applied science, almost had his career cut short in 1807 when he contracted a severe case of malaria while trying to save the inmates of Newgate Prison, who were being decimated by this dreaded disease. His popularity was reflected in the public issuance of hourly bulletins as to his health. His close scrape with death and slow recovery did not cure him of risk-taking for the sake of science. Years later, he was almost blinded by an explosive that he knew to be extraordinarily dangerous. He also took some risks by going down into the coal mines to find a safe way of lighting those dangerous shafts. The result was the Davy lamp, on which he refused to take a patent, that made possible a great increase in coal production. Though pride of invention was also claimed for George Stephenson and Dr. William Clanny, much to Davy’s chagrin, the coal mine owners recognized the priority of his invention by giving him an extremely expensive gift. The outcomes of some other projects, specifically unrolling the ancient Herculaneum papyri in Italy, protecting the copper sheathing on the Admiralty’s ships, and ventilating the House of Lords, were not as successful. One of his greatest discoveries was of the chemist Michael Faraday.
Davy was knighted in 1812, and immediately thereafter he married a rich, intellectual widow named Jane (Kerr) Apneece. The marriage that began with high hopes soon became unhappy. The couple fought publicly and were informally separated as much as they were together. There were no children.
Davy was elected to the presidency of the Royal Society in 1820. He began his tenure with great expectations of major scientific achievements. He hoped to achieve the conversion of the British Museum into a research institution and hoped, too, to obtain far more financial support from the government for his projects. He was unsuccessful in these endeavors, as well as in inspiring most of his fellow scientists to greater efforts. Before long, Davy would be caricatured as one of the “humbugs of the age.” In fact, he was uncomfortable in his administrative role and thought to escape it by foreign travel. Though his health deteriorated severely in 1825, Davy continued to travel, experiment, and write—his emphasis being on philosophical books such as Salmonia: Or, Days of Fly Fishing (1828) and Consolations in Travel: Or, The Last Days of a Philosopher (1830). He died on May 29, 1829, in Geneva.
Sir Humphry Davy was a scientist of considerable achievement whose reputation was greater in his own lifetime than subsequently. His nitrous oxide experiments, invention of the safety lamp, isolation of a half dozen chemical elements, and improvements in tanning earned for him his reputation. In addition, he wrote the textbook on agricultural chemistry that would be used for more than a generation. His poetry, which does not read well to the twentieth century ear, was of sufficient quality to warrant the praise of Coleridge and Southey.
Yet Davy’s greatest achievement was as an advocate and popularizer of the scientific investigation of nature. The British, first in competition with and then in victory over the French, were eager to know the composition of the world that they dominated. Davy is an example par excellence of the self-made men who built the institutions of British greatness.
Davy, Sir Humphry. The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy. Edited by John Davy. 9 vols. London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1839-1840. Volume 1 of this nine-volume set is a biography of Davy’s famous brother. This very useful collection is far from definitive, since many sources were ignored and others were selected from rather than printed in their entirety.
Elovitz, Paul H. “The Childhood Origins of Sir Humphry Davy’s Preoccupation with Science, Magic, and Death.” In Psychology and History, edited by Jerrold Atlas. New York: Long Island University Press, 1986. The author draws on his dual training in history and psychoanalysis to offer an explanation for Davy’s total devotion to the service of “Mother Nature.” He provides psychological explanations for Davy’s failure as president of the Royal Society, his physical collapse in 1825, and his disquieting belief in extraterrestrial communication and magic.
Elovitz, Paul H. “Psychohistorical Dreamwork: A New Methodology Applied to a Dream of Sir Humphry Davy.” In The Variety of Dream Experience, edited by Montague Ullman and Claire Limmer. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1987. Davy was an unusually active dreamer who relied on dreams for insight and inspiration. He wrote an entire book on the basis of one of his dreams. Elovitz created a new method for biographers to use dreams to understand their subjects better.
Forgin, Sophie, ed. Science and the Sons of Genius: Studies on Humphry Davy. London: Science Reviews, 1980. These seven papers are the results of the Davy Bicentenary Symposium held in honor of the famous chemist at the Royal Institution. The authors examined his scientific procedures, policies, personality, and literary productions.
Fullmer, June Z. “Davy’s Priority in the Iodine Dispute: Further Documentary Evidence.” Ambix, March, 1975: 39-51. The author was trained as a chemist before devoting herself to the history of science and becoming the most outstanding contemporary authority on Davy. This is one of more than a dozen articles that she has published on many different aspects of his career and life. In this case she examines his goals during the period he was traveling in France in 1813. Though Napoleon had given this Englishman a guarantee of safe passage and prize, he was still under intellectual assault in the land of the enemy. An informative and interesting article.
Kendall, James P. Humphry Davy: “Pilot” of Penzance. London: Faber and Faber, 1954. This is one of a large number of Davy biographies, some in foreign languages, written for younger audiences. Writing for adolescents, Kendall classifies Davy as a “Romantic” and avoids the pious platitudes of the Samuel Smiles type of biography. Unfortunately, he relies too heavily on the caricatured, often inaccurate biographies by John Davy and J. A. Paris.
Miller, David P. “Between Hostile Camps: Sir Humphry Davy’s Presidency of the Royal Society of London, 1820-1827.” The British Journal for the History of Science 16 (March, 1983): 1-47. Davy’s presidency of the Royal Society began with high hopes which were soon dashed at the time ill health forced his resignation in 1827. Davy was seen by many as a failed leader. The author traces the struggles of competing groups within the British scientific establishment.
Treneer, Anne. The Mecurial Chemist: A Life of Sir Humphry Davy. London: Methuen and Co., 1963. This excellent life of Davy stresses his Cornish origins, affiliation with the Romantic poets, and nonscientific activities. It is well written and recommended for the nonscientific reader.
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