The son of a woodcarver, Humphry Davy was born in Penzance, Cornwall on 17 December 1778. As a young boy, he had a wide field of interests including sketching, writing poetry, geology and fishing. He was educated at Truro before starting an apprenticeship with a surgeon and apothecary in Penzance.
In 1797, his interest in chemistry led to Davy taking up the post of assistant to Thomas Beddoes, in the Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. While he was working in Bristol, Davy experimented on gases. In the course of these experiments, he produced nitrous oxide (laughing gas).Davy tested this gas on himself. Inhaling another gas known as water gas, (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) nearly cost him his life. In 1800, he published his results in his book ‘Researches, Chemical and Philosophical’.
His book brought Davy to the notice of other scientists and he was invited to lecture at the Royal Institution in London. His lectures at the Royal Institution proved highly popular with many fashionable people attending.
While in London, Davy started investigating the action of electricity on a number of chemical compounds. His 1806 paper on his research, called “On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity”, was awarded the Napoleon Prize from the Institut de France, despite France and England being at war at the time.
Using electrolysis, he discovered the elements potassium and sodium in 1807. The following year he added the elements calcium, strontium, barium and magnesium to his discoveries made by electrolysis. He also discovered boron in 1808 by heating a mixture of borax and potassium. Other studies included the nature and chemistry of chlorine and iodine along with the discovery of the compounds hydrogen telluride, and hydrogen phosphide (phosphine).
In the year 1812, Davy delivered his farewell lecture to members of the Royal Institution and married Jane Apreece. One of his last acts with the Royal Institution was to appoint Michael Faraday as an assistant. That year he also published the Elements of Chemical Philosophy. This he intended to be the first of a series of works containing much of his own work. Unfortunately, he did not complete the rest of the series.
Having left the Royal Institution Davy travelled through Europe and made a study of volcanoes. In 1815, he addressed a danger of methane (firedamp) explosions in mines. Pockets of this gas would ignite when exposed to the naked flames of the candles the miners used at the time. His safety lamp saved the lives of many miners by preventing these explosions.
His scientific achievements were recognized by his being made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1803 and being awarded its Copley Medal in 1805. He was knighted in 1812. In 1818 he was elevated to the peerage, becoming a baronet, and, from 1820 – 1827, he was president of the Royal Society.
In latter part of his life he returned to his love of fishing, publishing Salmonia: or Days of Fly Fishing in 1828. This work contained some of his own sketches.
Humphry Davy died in Geneva, Switzerland on May 29, 1829. His final book Consolations in Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher was published posthumously in 1830.
BBC Historic Figures