Humphry Davy

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Sir Humphry Davy
Sir Humphry Davy
Sir Humphry Davy
Born December 17 1778(1778-12-17)
Penzance, Cornwall
Died May 29 1829 (aged 50)
Geneva, Switzerland
Fields Physicist and Chemist
Institutions Royal Society, Royal Institution
Doctoral students Michael Faraday
Known for Electrolysis, sodium, potassium, calcium,magnesium, barium, boron, Davy lamp

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet, FRS (17 December 177829 May 1829) was a British chemist and physicist. He was born in Penzance, Cornwall and both his brother John Davy and cousin Edmund Davy were also noted chemists. Berzelius called Davy's 1806 Bakerian Lecture "On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity" "one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry."[1] This paper was central to any chemical affinity theory in the first half of the nineteenth century.[2] Davy is probably best remembered today for his discoveries of several alkali and alkaline-earth elements, as well as contributions to the discoveries of the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine.


Sir Humphry revelled in his status, as his lectures gathered many spectators. Davy became well known due to his experiments with the physiological action of some gases, including laughing gas (nitrous oxide) - to which he was addicted, once stating that its properties bestowed all of the benefits of alcohol but was devoid of its flaws. Davy later damaged his eyesight in a laboratory accident with nitrogen trichloride.[3] In 1801 he was nominated professor at the Royal Institution of Great Britain and Fellow of the Royal Society, over which he would later preside. He later invented the Davy lamp which was a great and well-known success.

Retirement and further work

File:Humphry Davy Engraving 1830.jpg
Sir Humphry Davy, 1830 engraving based on the painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830)

In 1812 he was knighted, gave a farewell lecture to the Royal Institution, and married a wealthy widow, Jane Apreece. While generally acknowledged as being faithful to his wife, their relationship was stormy and in his later years Davy travelled to continental Europe alone. In October 1813 he and his wife, accompanied by Michael Faraday as his scientific assistant (and valet) traveled to France to collect a medal that Napoleon Bonaparte had awarded Davy for his electro-chemical work. Whilst in Paris 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. The party left Paris on December 29, travelling south through Montpellier and Nice and then to Italy.

After passing through Genoa, they went to Florence, where, in a series of experiments starting on Sunday March 27, Davy, with Faraday's assistance, succeeded in using the sun's rays to ignite diamond, and proved that it was composed of pure carbon. Davy's party continued on to Rome, and also visited Naples and Mount Vesuvius. By the June 17, they were in Milan, where they met Alessandro Volta, and continued north to Geneva. They returned to Italy via Munich and Innsbruck, passed though Venice and returned to Rome. Their plans to travel to Greece and Constantinople (Istanbul) were abandoned after Napoleon's escape from Elba, and they returned to England.

Davy lamp

File:Davy lamp.png
The Davy lamp

After his return to England in 1815, Davy went on to produce the Davy lamp which was widely used by miners. Although the idea of the safety lamp had already been demonstrated by William Reid Clanny and an engineer, George Stephenson, Davy's use of wire gauze to prevent the spread of flame was quickly copied by both of these inventors in their later designs.

Discovery of chlorine

He also showed that oxygen could not be obtained from the substance known as oxymuriatic acid and proved the substance to be an element, which he named chlorine. (However Carl Scheele is credited as the discoverer of chlorine. Scheele had discovered it 36 years before Davy, but was unable to publish his findings.) This discovery overturned Lavoisier's definition of acids as compounds of oxygen.

Acid-base studies

In 1815 Davy suggested that acids were substances that contained replaceable hydrogen – hydrogen that could be partly or totally replaced by metals. When acids reacted with metals they formed salts. Bases were substances that reacted with acids to form salts and water. These definitions worked well for most of the nineteenth century.

In 1818, he was awarded a baronetcy, and two years later he became President of the Royal Society.


Davy's grave, Plot 208, Plainpalais Cemetery, Rue des Rois, Geneva.

Davy died in Switzerland in 1829, his various inhalations of chemicals finally taking their toll on his health. He is buried in the Plain Palais Cemetery in Geneva.

Davy's laboratory assistant, Michael Faraday, went on to enhance Davy's work and in the end became more famous and influential – to such an extent that Davy is supposed to have claimed Faraday as his greatest discovery. However, he later accused Faraday of plagiarism, causing Faraday (the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry) to cease all research in electromagnetism until his mentor's death.

Legacy and memorials

Statue of Davy in Penzance, Cornwall
  • A lunar crater is named after Sir Humphry Davy. It has a diameter of 34 km and coordinates of 11.8S, 8.1W.
  • Davy was the subject of the first ever clerihew.
  • A satellite of the University of Sheffield at Golden Smithies Lane in Wath upon Dearne (Manvers) is called Humphry Davy House and is currently home to the School of Nursing and Midwifery, until April 2009.

Writings by Davy

See Fullmer's work for a full list of Davy's articles.[4] Davy's books are as follows:

  • Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Bristol: Biggs and Cottle, 1800
  • Elements of Chemical Philosophy, London: Johnson and Co., 1812
  • Elements Of Agricultural Chemistry In A Course Of Lectures, London, Longman, 1813
  • The Papers of Sir H. Davy, Newcastle: Emerson Charnley, 1816 (on Davy's safety lamp)
  • Discourses to the Royal Society, London: John Murray, 1827
  • Salmonia: Or Days of Fly Fishing, London: John Murray, 1828
  • Consolations in Travel: Or the Last Days of a Philosopher, London: John Murray, 1830


  1. Berzelius, J. J. (1818). Traite de chimie, trans. Jourdian and Esslinger, vol. 1, pg. 164. 1st Swedish ed. (Larbok i kemien), Stockholm, this ed., 8 vol., Paris (1829-33).
  2. Levere, Trevor H. (1971). Affinity and Matter – Elements of Chemical Philosophy 1800-1865. Gordon and Breach Science Publishers. ISBN 2881245838. 
  3. Humphry Davy (1813). "On a New Detonating Compound". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 103: 1–7. 
  4. Fullmer, June Z. (1969). Sir Humphry Davy's Published Work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Further reading

File:Davy Humphry book.jpg
Davy, as painted by James Lonsdale (1777-1839)
  • Davy, John, The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, London: Smith, Elder, and Company, 1839-40
  • Treener, Anne, The Mercurial Chemist, A Life of Sir Humphry Davy London: Methuen, 1963
  • Hartley, Harold, Humphry Davy, London: Nelson, 1966
  • Fullmer, June Z., Sir Humphry Davy's Published Works, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969
  • Knight, David, Humphry Davy: Science and Power, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992
  • Lamont-Brown, Raymond, Humphry Davy, Life Beyond the Lamp, Sutton Publishing, 2004
  • Harold Hartley (1960). "The Wilkins Lecture. Sir Humphry Davy, Bt., P.R.S. 1778-1829". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences. 255 (1281): 153–180. 

External links

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Preceded by
Smithson Tennant
Copley Medal
Succeeded by
Thomas Andrew Knight
NAME Davy, Sir Humphry
SHORT DESCRIPTION Physicist and Chemist
DATE OF BIRTH December 17 1778(1778-12-17)
PLACE OF BIRTH Penzance, Cornwall, United Kingdom
DATE OF DEATH May 29 1829
PLACE OF DEATH Geneva, Switzerland
bs:Humphry Davy

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