Davy, Humphry

BORN 17 Dec 1778, Penzance, Cornwall - DIED 29 May 1829, Genève
GRAVE LOCATION Genève, Genève: Cimetière de Plainpalais, Rue des Rois (C-208)

Humphrey Davy the son of the woodcarver Robert Davy. His mother's name was Grace Millett. He was born in Penzance where he went to grammar school. After that he attended Truro Grammar School. After his father's death in 1794 his guardian John Tonkin found him an apprenticeship in Penzance with the surgeon John Bingham Borlase.

By the time he became a chemist for an apothecary, he started conducting chemical experiments at home. In 1797 he read Lavoisier's "Traité élémentaire de chimie". By that time he was also writing poetry and he created paintings as well. In 1799 one of his experiments showed that two cold substances can melt when they are rubbed to each other without any additional heat. Also in 1799 he was able to isolate nitrous oxide (or laughing gas) and tried it on himself. He inhaled it for seven minutes and was completely intoxicated. He realised it left no damage to people who used it and realized that it might be used as an anesthetic during operations. But he left it at that and it would be 45 years later before dentists would start using it as an anesthetic.

In 1801 the Royal Institution in London appointed him as a lecturer and the yong Michael Faraday attended his lectures. An intoxication lamed him and another explosion temporary took away his eyesight in 1811. He hired Faraday to assist him and a long collaboration and friendship followed. Davy was knighted in 1812 and three days later he married a rich and very beautiful Scottish widow, Jane Apreece (1780-1855).

Together with his wife and Michael Faraday he travelled through Europe from 1813 until 1815. When he returned to England he invented a miner's safety helmet with a lamp that continued to give light under difficult air circumstances. He didn't patent this invention and later he was falsely accused of plagiarism by engineer George Stephenson, who had designed a different lamp independently. His marriage wasn't too happy, but in 1818 he travelled once more to the continent with Jane. They visited Lord Byron in Ravenna as well as Venice. Davy and Byron knew each other from England and Davy was among the few people from England that Byron wanted to see.

The relation between Davy and Faraday cooled after Davy criticized Faraday and the latter ceased his research in electromagnetism until Davy's death. In 1820 he was elected President of the Royal Society, succeeding Josph Banks. There was no formal opposition against his election but not everyone had backed him initially. By 1826 there was
opposition against him, but he was re-elected. In 1827 he had a series of strokes and it became clear that he suffered from a heart disease that could kill him at any moment. He resigned from his presidency in 1827 and Davies Gilbert succeeded him.

Davy travelled restlessly on the continent without his wife, frequently visiting an inn in Laibach where he was nursed by the daughter of the owner, Josephine Dettela. The first time he had been at the inn was around 1818 with Jane and Josephine had been fifteen years old at the time.

During the last months of his life he wrote the mysterious and influential "Consolation in travel, or, The Last Days of a Philosopher". In 1829 he moved to Rome and because he could die at any time now his wife and his brother John hurried to Rome. His condition worsened, but he indicated that he wanted to travel once more and they moved to Geneva. There he died and according to his will he was buried in the place he died. He left a substantial sum to Josephine Dettela.

Related persons
• met Ampère, André Marie
• visited Beauharnais, Joséphine de
• visited Byron, George Noel Gordon
• knew Murchison, Roderick Impey

4/12/1799Humphry Davy first meets William Godwin in London [Godwin, William]
26/12/1799Humphry Davy inhales laughing gas. Its scienifical name was nitrous oxide. Davy noted that it made him feel like had become a sublime being himself. 
18/4/1820Humphry Davy visits Lord Byron in Ravenna. On this day Byron wrote to Richard Belgrave Hoppner that Davy had called on him that morning. [Byron, George Noel Gordon ]


The grave of Humphrey Davy at the Cimetière de Plainpalais, Genève.
Picture by Androom (06 Dec 2007)


• Holmes, Richard, The Age of Wonder, Vintage, New York
Humphry Davy - Wikipedia

Dawison, Bogumil

Published: 29 Jun 2008
Last update: 26 Oct 2021