Friday 6 March 2015

Men of Yore: Humphry Davy

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

Humphry Davy

Sir Humphry Davy, widely considered to be one of the greatest chemists and inventors that Great Britain has ever produced, is highly regarded for his work on various alkali and alkaline earth metals, and for his valuable contributions regarding the findings of the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine.

Early Life and Education:

Humphry was born on December 17, 1778 at Penzance, Cornwall to a wood carver. After learning to read and write from ‘old Mr Bushell’, he was sent at the age of six to the grammar school at Penzance, where the schoolmaster, the Revd Mr Coryton, made learning a pain (notably by twisting the boys' ears). Here Davy enjoyed much idleness, which he later felt was fortunate for him, the source indeed of his talents and their application. He became intellectually self-propelled. He was naturally a gifted and sharp boy who could write impressive fiction and poetry, who also enjoyed fishing and shooting. His first experience of chemistry was when he made fireworks with his sister. At sixteen, he lost his father. After the tragic event, Gregory Watt, son of the famous Scottish inventor James Watt, came to visit him and subsequently became a lodger in the house of Mrs. Davy, his mother. They became great friends and their strong relationship have had an important influence on the later career of Davy. Mr. Davies Gilbert was a huge source of inspiration and encouragement for Davy, who later went on to introduce him to the notice of the Royal Institution in London.

Contributions and Achievements:

Dr. Thomas Beddoes, an emiment English physician and scientific writer, founded the “Pneumatic Institution” (a medical research facility) in Bristol, and Davy became associated with it in 1756. Within one year, Davy wrote his legendary publications “Essays on MAI and Light, with a New Theory of Respiration” and “Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide and its Respiration”. Both of these works instantly gained worldwide recognition. Davy was not only the first scientist to reveal the peculiar exhilarating or intoxicating properties of nitrous oxide gas, but his “Researches” also featured the results of various interesting experiments on the respiration of carburetted hydrogen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbonic acid and nitrous gases. 
Davy delivered his first lecture at the Royal Institution in 1801 and instantly became a popular figure there. His tenure as a lecturer was immensely successful. During his second Bakerian lecture at the Royal Society in 1807, he made public his tremendous achievement – the decomposition by galvanism of the fixed alkalies. He performed a demonstration that these alkalies are simply metallic oxides. These discoveries are said to be the most important contribution made to the “Philosophical Transactions” (of the Royal Society) since Sir Isaac Newton.   
1812 saw the development of the Davy Lamp, a head-lamp worn by miners, which eliminated the risk of methane-based explosions in mines for which he received the Rumford Medal.
Other important books of Davy include “Elements of Chemical Philosophy” (1812), “Elements of Agricultural Chemistry” (1813) and “Consolations in Travel” (1830).

Later Life and Death:

Davy was knighted in 1812, after which he married a rich widow named Mrs. Apreece. He was also made a baronet in 1818 for outstanding contributions to his country and mankind; most importantly, his invention of the safety-lamp. He was promoted to the president of the Royal Society in 1820 and he performed his duties for consecutive seven years. 
His health began to decline in 1827 which became the cause of his resignation. Davy died at Geneva on May 29, 1829.

Source: (slightly modified)
Here we have another example of a scientist who had a strong sense of curiosity about the world combined with genuine love for whatever he turned his hand to.  His curiosity wasn't limited to just one field, as is shown by his love of poetry, fishing, shooting and chemistry; nor was he limited to being a cloistered scientist living in a laboratory cut-off from the real-world, as is shown by his practical lectures and his inventions like the Davy Lamp and the anaesthetic Nitrous Oxide.  This shows us that true scientists are simply human beings who have a love for knowledge, and for learning, wherever they may be and whatever environment they find themselves in.  And that curiosity about the world is something that we can all foster and enjoy, regardless of whether we are PhD students or backstreet chemists or whatever.

For those who are interested there's a much more extensive biography that can be found HERE.


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