Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829)

Best known for his experiments into electrochemistry, Humphry Davy was born in Penzance, Cornwall, the son of a woodcarver. Shortly after the death of his father, Davy found work as an apothecary’s apprentice, but moved to Bristol in 1798 to work as an assistant to Thomas Beddoes at the Pneumatic Institution. There Davy discovered the anaesthetic properties of laughing gas (nitrous oxide). Publishing this work secured his reputation, and in 1801 he was hired as an assistant chemistry lecturer at the Royal Institution. He became an accomplished lecturer and was very popular among the fashionable elite who came to hear him.

Meanwhile, in the basement laboratory of the Royal Institution, Davy performed the research into electrochemistry for which he is chiefly famous. By passing electric current through distilled water he discovered that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. He also isolated sodium and potassium by electrolysis of their fused salts, and later isolated barium, calcium, strontium and magnesium by distilling off the mercury from their amalgams. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1803, and received the Copley Medal in 1805.

Davy resigned from his full-time position at the Royal Institution in 1812 following his marriage to Jane Apreece, a wealthy heiress. He was knighted the same year. In 1813 he set off with his wife on a two-year tour of Europe, taking the young Michael Faraday with him as an assistant and valet. When he returned he responded to a request for help from a group of Newcastle miners, inventing the miners’ safety lamp, which bears his name.

Davy became President of the Royal Society in 1820, but retired from the position in 1827 because of ill health. He moved abroad, and died in Geneva, Switzerland in 1829.