Ambix Article Collection on Humphry Davy

Megan Piorko Discussion

Free Access for 2 months "Papers on Humphry Davy (1778-1829): Chemistry, culture and society in early nineteenth-century England" 

In the early nineteenth century, Humphry Davy was almost certainly the best-known English chemist in Europe. The son of a bankrupt yeoman farmer in Cornwall, he served part of an apprenticeship as an apothecary before moving to Bristol where he discovered the extraordinary physiological properties of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). In Bristol he formed close friendships with Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who both greatly admired his poetry. In 1801 Davy moved to the Royal Institution where for a decade he was the most popular lecturer in London and initiated the institution’s reputation for research by, for example, electro-chemically isolating and naming chemical elements such as sodium and potassium. He was Professor of Chemistry to the Board of Agriculture and there and at the Royal Institution, he formed links with members of the aristocracy whose great houses he enjoyed visiting, sometimes writing from them, otherwise inconsequentially, to his mother to show how her son had risen in the highly stratified society of early nineteenth-century Britain. His rise continued in 1812 by being knighted by the Prince Regent and marrying a wealthy widow (whose money came from her father, an Antigua merchant and corrupt prize agent). He and Lady Davy toured the Continent between 1813 and 1815 meeting, ex-Empress Josephine and the Queen of Naples. Shortly after his return Davy in the closing months of 1815 invented a form of the miners’ safety lamp. This crucial device allowed industrialisation to continue, and, possibly more than anything else, is what he is remembered for today. In 1820 he became President of the Royal Society of London, succeeding Joseph Banks who had occupied that role for forty-two years. In the circumstances, any successor to Banks would have had a difficult time and Davy’s temperament meant he was unsuited to the role. After a stroke he resigned in 1827 and spent most of the rest of his life on the Continent, dying in Geneva in 1829.

Edited by Professor Frank A.J.L. James made available through Ambix online: