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Sir Humphry Davy

Sir Humphry Davy, 17 December 1778-29 May 1829, English chemist.

Davy, educated in Penzance and Truro in Cornwall, was apprenticed to a surgeon in 1795. As a youth he was active and his interests were wide-ranging: he enjoyed hiking through mountains, collecting minerals, hunting and fishing, and writing poetry. He in fact planned to publish a volume of his juvenile poems, but in 1797 he had what might be described as a kind of conversion to the scientific method. His friend Davies Giddy (later Davies Giddy, president of the Royal Society) encouraged him to pursue scientific studies, and Davy was soon immersed in many of the scientific and especially chemical controversies of the day: optics, physics, and the nature of electricity.

After performing experiments on nitrous oxide (laughing gas), he was in 1798 named chemical superintendent to the Pneumatic Institution, a foundation which investigated the medical benefits of various gases. He published his results in Researches, Chemical and Philosophical (1800), a volume which earned him the opportunity to lecture at the new Royal Institution of Great Britain. His lectures were surprisingly successful, even beyond narrow scientific circles, and enabled him to meet and befriend some of the most important scientists and literary figures of the day: Sir Joseph Banks, Count Rumford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey.

In 1802 he was appointed professor of chemistry, and in the following year became a fellow of the Royal Society, of which he was elected secretary in 1807. His research on tanning and electricity earned him the Copley Medal in 1805.

Much of Davy's important work in the first decade of the nineteenth century focused on the relationship between chemistry and electricity. Having concluded that electrolytic cells generated electrical energy through a chemical process, he speculated that electrolysis might be used to decompose substances into their elements, as he explained in his lector "On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity" (1806), which earned him the Napoleon Prize from the Institut de France in the following year -- an uncommon international honor in an era of war between France and Britain. Although he overestimated the ability of electrolysis, he did successfully isolate sodium and potassium, and was the first to discover boron, hydrogen telluride, and hydrogen phosphide (phosphine).

In 1810 he turned his attention back to applied chemistry, and lectured large audiences in Dublin on agricultural chemistry and geology. He continued to accumulate impressive accolades: fees of £1,275 for his lectures, an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin, and a knighthood in 1812. Around this time he began his Elements of Chemical Philosophy, a work which ultimately proved too ambitious to be completed.

In 1813, Davy took on as a laboratory assistant the young Michael Faraday, who was to become one of the most important scientists of the next generation. Faraday traveled with Davy and his wife through Europe, including France, for which he received particular permission from Napoleon himself. Using a portable laboratory and relying on contacts with various Continental scientists, he discovered iodine and did important work on chlorine chemistry.

On his return, he produced the most practical of his inventions: a lamp which could be used in coal mines without risk of explosion. The safety lamp, or Davy lamp, earned him two Rumford Medals from the Royal Society, and he was created baronet in 1818. He served as president of the Royal Society from 1820 to 1827, and worked to establish the Zoological Society and the Royal Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park. By this time he was in ill health, and was forced to resign many of his scientific appointments. He turned his attention in his final years to belles lettres, publishing Salmonia: or Days of Fly Fishing on the model of Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler in 1828 and Consolations in Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher posthumously in 1830.