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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sir Humphry Davy

Humphry Davy was born in Penzance, Cornwall on December 17, 1778, the eldest of five children. His Cornish father was a comfortably well off wood carver and small farmer who died when Humphry was 16.


A keen naturalist as a boy he was encouraged to take up science by Davies Goddy, a figure of local importance who gave the boy the run of his lab.

Due to his father's early death, Davy was entered into an apprenticeship with John Bingham Borlase, a surgeon with a large practice at Penzance in order to support his family.

A talented poet as a young man according to Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth. They thought better of  Davy's  poetry than do some modern critics.

Wordsworth gave Davy the task of assisting his friend Cottle, the poet's publisher in correcting the second edition of his Lyrical Ballads.

In 1798 Davy was  employed by the physician Thomas Beddoes as laboratory head in his fashionable medical pneumatic institution in Bristol.

Davy investigated then demonstrated whilst working for Thomas Beddoes the use of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) by inhaling it himself to ease the pain from a tooth abscess.  He nearly died from the effects. Davy never followed up his findings, as he saw the hilarity it caused a useful way of relieving the pain of surgery. He never saw it as an anesthetic.

In 1800 he wrote Researches, Chemical and Philosophical Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide and its Respiration.

Sir Humphry Davy, Bt, by Thomas Phillips (died 1845). 


The first tooth extracted using laughing gas was on a New England dentist, Horace Wells in 1844.

Between 1801 and 1802 Davy tried to fix an image on light sensitive paper but was unsuccessful in producing the first photo.

In 1802 Davy was appointed Professor of Chemistry at The Royal Institution in London. He was such a handsome scientist that women would flock to his discourses on chemistry to see him. The brilliant lectures he delivered as professor of chemistry were major social occasions.

Cleanliness was not a priority for Davy. J Cordy Jeaffreson wrote in A Book About Doctors (1860):  "He was said to be affected...not to have enough time for the ordinary decencies of the toilet. Cold abulations, neither his constitution nor philosophic temperament required so he rarely washed himself. And on the plea of saving time, he used to put on his clean linen over his dirty...so that he has been known to wear at the same time five shirts and five pairs of stockings."

In 1809, it is said that Davy invented the first electric light. He connected two wires to a battery and attached a charcoal strip between the other ends of the wires His lights only lasted a few minutes.

A friend of Sir Walter Scott, Darwin regularly visited the Scottish novelist at  his Abbotsford home.

Davy damaged his eyesight in a laboratory accident with nitrogen trichloride in 1812. His accident induced him to hire Michael Faraday as a coworker.

Faraday became a greater scientist than Davy. His last years were embittered by jealousy .

In 1812  Davy married a wealthy Scottish widow, Jane Apreece (1780-1855), three days after being knighted. She disapproved of science especially after her husband took a chemical chest on their honeymoon. The marriage was ultimately unhappy and childless.

After marrying Jane Apreece Davy went on a tour of Europe with a young Michael Faraday in 1813-14 and met many European scientists. They hobnobbed with leading French scientists despite the country being at war with France.

His results were so highly esteemed that Davy was awarded a prize established by Napoleon even though Britain and France were at war.

While in France Davy was asked by Gay-Lussac to investigate a mysterious substance isolated by Bernard Courtois. Davy showed it to be an element, which is now called iodine

Davy discovered seven new elements in total including sodium potassium, calcium and magnesium.

A letter from Italy safely reached Davy despite being addressed to "SIRO MFREDEVI/LONDRA"

Davy was an expert angler with an intense interest in it. His younger brother John said he was "a little mad about it"

He wrote a book on fly fishing titled Salmonia or Days of Fly Fishing by an Angler.

Davy started experimented with lamps for use in coal mines in 1815. At that time before gas lightening had been invented, the only way a bright light could be obtained was a candle without protection. The first trial of a Davy lamp with a wire sieve was at Hebburn Colliery on January 9, 1816.

Diagram of a Davy Lamp

The first Davy lamp to be taken down the mine shaft of the Penzance Ding Dong mine was carried by the Reverend John Hodgson. The first miner he approached with this new apparatus freaked out.

Davy refused to take out a patent for his lamp as he didn't want to make money out of saving the lives of miners.


Chemical poisoning from his frequent experiments left Davy an invalid the last two decades of his life.

Davy spent the last months of his life writing Consolations in Travel, an immensely popular, somewhat freeform compendium of poetry, thoughts on science and philosophy. Published posthumously, the work became a staple of both scientific and family libraries for several decades afterward.

Humphry Davy died in a hotel room in Geneva, Switzerland, on May 29, 1829 after suffering a stroke several months previously.

Source The Faber Book of Anecdotes 

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