Davy, Humphry (1778–1829)

Born in Penzance, son of Robert Davy, a woodcarver. Educated at Penzance and Truro grammar schools and apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon in Truro. Davy had wide interests as a young man, writing poetry as well as conducting chemical experiments on the nature of heat, light and acidity. In October 1798 he went to Bristol to work for Thomas Beddoes at his Pneumatic Institution, which opened in March 1799. Davy soon became friendly with Southey and Coleridge, and they both participated in his experiments with nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’. Southey published some of Davy’s early poems in the Annual Anthology (1799) and (1800) and suggested Davy should write a poem on Mango Capac, the first Inca, after Southey had failed in his plan to identify Madoc with the Inca ruler. In January 1801 Davy moved to London, and Southey saw much less of him. Davy worked at the Royal Institution, where he became a Professor in 1802. In 1807 he made a series of experiments there, using the Voltaic pile to isolate previously unknown elements including potassium and sodium. This work was regarded as a brilliant contribution to Britain’s scientific reputation; Southey, while recognising Davy’s genius, thought that he became vain and over-assiduous to win the approval of polite society. Davy was elected President of the Royal Society in 1820.

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