Humphry Davy: the promotion of a genius – Dr Les Shutt
Les Shutt treated us to a well-researched talk on the life of Humphry Davy from his early life in Cornwall and his move to Bristol, and then on to the Royal Institute in London.
Humphry Davy was born in 1778 at Market Jew Street in Penzance. When he went to preparatory school he lodged with an apothecary, Robert Tonkin, who was a longtime friend of the famaily, and sponsor of Davy. Tonkin taught Davy the rudiments of science and paid for him to go to Truro Grammar School where he studied Latin and Greek. When Davy’s father died in 1794, Tonkin apprenticed Davy to John Bingham Borlase, a surgeon in a large practice in Penzance.
Another influential person in Davy’s life was Thomas Beddoes who was a Reader in Chemistry at Oxford and believed that patients with ‘consumption’ (tuberculosis) could be treated with ‘factitious gases’ using inhalation therapy. Beddoes went on to establish the Bristol Pneumatic Institute which received financial support from Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. James Watt built the apparatus that Beddoes used to treat his patients.
In 1798 Davy met the engineer and politician Davies Giddy, a close friend of Beddoes, in Penzance, who permitted him to use his library in Tredea, Cornwall. During this time Davy wrote an important work, An Essay on Heat and the Combinations of Light. He sent the manuscript to Beddoes which secured him the position of Superintendent of the Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol while aged only nineteen. Later that year Davy moved to Bristol to join Beddoes at the Pneumatic Institute. There he experimented with inhaling gases like nitric oxide and carbon monoxide and, unsurprisingly, became quite ill.
Bristol was also a hub for local poets including Coleridge and Wordsworth who befriended Davy and encouraged him to write his own poems, 8 of which were published. He was also an accomplished artist and painted local scenes, including St Michael’s Mount.
Davy published his research into nitrous oxide (laughing gas) in 1800 and remarked how its anesthetic property might be useful in operations, though he never followed up on this. In 1801 Davy was offered a post at the newly opened Royal Institution in London. The lectures he gave were well received and often included spectacular and sometimes dangerous chemical demonstrations. He received a knighthood in 1812.
In 1820 Davy became President of the Royal Society and during his time there discovered sodium, potassium, magnesium, strontium, barium and chlorine. Humphry Davy died in Geneva in 1829.