Humphry Davy Biography
DAVY, Sir Humphry (1778–1829). A celebrated English chemist. He was born at Penzance, in Cornwall, where his father was a carver in wood. At the school of Truro, where he was educated until he was 15, he showed little relish for classical learning, but was distinguished for a highly retentive memory and an early passion for poetry, which never forsook him. In 1795 he became apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary at Penzance. At the same time he entered upon a course of study all but universal: a system of mathematical study, skeptical philosophy, Scotch metaphysics, and German transcendentalism successively engaged his attention. The study of natural philosophy brought him nearer to that department which was to be his own; but it was not till he had reached his nineteenth year that he entered seriously upon the study of chemistry. He now made the acquaintance of Dr. Beddoes, who had established a pneumatic institution at Bristol and who took him as his assistant. Here Davy carried out a course of experiments on the curative effects of different gases, in which he had more than once nearly sacrificed his life. He thus discovered the singular exhilarating effect of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). The account which he published of his researches established his reputation and led to his appointment, at the age of 22, as lecturer at the Royal Institution of London. He delivered his first lecture in 1801, and his eloquence and the novelty and variety of experiments soon attracted large and brilliant audiences. In 1802 he was made professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution. In 1803 he began researches connected with agriculture and during 10 years lectured before the Board of Agriculture on agricultural chemistry. His lectures were published in 1813, under the title Elements of Agricultural Chemistry. The discoveries, however, on which Davy's fame as a chemist chiefly rests took their origin in the views which he developed in 1806 in the Bakerian lecture, On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity. This essay was universally regarded as one of the most valuable contributions ever made to chemical science and obtained the prize of the French Institute. A remarkable view first advanced in this essay is that chemical affinity is nothing but the mutual electrical attraction of the ultimate particles of matter. Davy's electrolytic experiments led to the establishment on a firm scientific basis of Lavoisier's idea that bases are compounds of oxygen with metals, and to the extension of this idea to caustic potash and soda, which Lavoisier had regarded as elements. In 1807 Davy succeeded in decomposing potash. When he first saw the globules of the new metal potassium, his delight is said to have been so ecstatic that it required some time for him to control himself before he was able to continue the experiments. In the following year he decomposed soda, lime, baryta, and strontia, obtaining the metal sodium in the isolated state and the metals calcium, barium, and strontium in the form of alloys with mercury (amalgams). Owing to a delay in Davy's work caused by a severe illness, calcium and barium were independently isolated in 1808 by Berzeling and Pontin. In 1809 Davy demonstrated the elementary nature of chlorine and proved that hydrochloric acid is a compound of chlorine and hydrogen. It thus became clear that oxygen was not by any means an essential constituent of acids.
In 1812 Davy was knighted, married a lady of considerable wealth, and resigned the chemical chair of the Royal Institution. That he might investigate his new theory of volcanic action, he, received permission from the French government—though the two countries were then at war—to visit the Continent and was received with the greatest distinction by the scientific men of France. On this visit he was accompanied by his assistant, Michael Faraday. Returning to England, in 1815, Davy entered on the investigation of the nature of fire damp, which is the cause of explosions in coal mines. This resulted in the invention of the safety lamp (q.v.), one of the most valuable presents ever made by science to humanity. On the death of Sir Joseph Banks, in 1820, Sir Humphry Davy was elected president of the Royal Society. His attention was shortly after called to the important problem of preserving the copper sheathing of vessels from corrosion by the action of sea water. This he effected by means of bands of zinc; but the bottoms of the vessels became so foul from the adhesion of weeds, shells, etc., that the plan had to be abandoned.
Early in 1825 Sir Humphry Davy had begun to complain of the loss of strength, and in 1826 he had a paralytic attack affecting his right side. He made two journeys to the Continent for the recovery of his health, and died at Geneva on May 29, 1829, at the early age of 51. The Genevese government evinced their respect by a public funeral. So widely spread was the reputation of Sir Humphry Davy that he was a member of almost all the scientific institutions in the world. Cuvier, in his Eloge, says: "Mr. Davy, not yet 52 years of age, occupied, in the opinion of all that could judge of such labors, the first rank among the chemists of this or of any other age." Besides works already mentioned, and a great number of contributions to the Philosophical Transactions, Davy published: Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812), and Salmonia, or Days of Fly Fishing (1827). His Consolations in Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher (3d ed., 1831), appeared after his death. Consult Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy, by his brother (2 vols., London, 1836), and The Life of Sir Humphry Davy, by Dr. Paris (ib., 1831). See also Chemistry; Chemistry, Agricultural.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. VI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 539-540.