Davy, Humphry

Humphry Davy (1778-1829) grew up poor, helping his mother pay off debts left by his father, a woodcarver who had lost his earnings in speculative investments. Davy's education was not outstanding, since he could not afford to go to very good schools. Still, Davy managed to absorb lots of classic literature and science. In later life, he said he was happy he did not have to study too hard in school so that he had more time to think on his own.

Without money for further education, seventeen-year-old Davy began to serve as an apprentice to a pharmacist/surgeon. During this time, Davy took it upon himself to learn more about whatever interested him, including geography, languages, philosophy, and science. When he was nineteen years old, Davy read a book on chemistry by famous French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) that convinced him to concentrate on that subject. For the rest of his life, Davy's career was marked by brilliant, if sometimes hasty, scientific explorations in chemistry and electro-chemistry.

Conducts Research on Himself

One of Davy's scientific trademarks was his willingness, even eagerness, to use himself as a guinea pig. In the process of conducting experiments on the therapeutic (healing) properties of various gases, he breathed four quarts of pure hydrogen and nearly suffocated. In one instance, Davy's fondness for risk paid off. While studying nitrous oxide gas, he discovered that it made him feel dizzy and euphoric (happy and silly). When he encouraged his friends to inhale the gas with him, he found that their inhibitions were lowered and their feelings of happiness or sadness intensified. Davy's poet friend Robert Southey (1774-1843) referred to his experience as being "turned on," and nitrous oxide became known as laughing gas. Beyond Davy's circle, nitrous oxide parties became a fad among wealthy people.

Davy recognized, however, that the gas could also be used to dull physical pain during minor surgery. Although the medical profession ignored this discovery for nearly 50 years, nitrous oxide eventually became the first chemical anesthetic. In an 1844 experiment, a dentist had one of his teeth extracted successfully while under the influence of nitrous oxide, having first taken the precaution of writing his will). Some dentists still use the gas today for nervous patients, especially children.

Other Accomplishments

Davy's research credits beyond nitrous oxide are many. His style in the laboratory was to work quickly and intensely, pursuing one new idea after another. He aimed at originality and creativity, rather than tediously repeating tests and confirming results. Some of his later discoveries include several chemical elements, arc lighting, and the invention of a safer miner's lamp.

Davy was known for his charm and good looks, as well. While in his early thirties, after being knighted in 1812, Davy married a wealthy Scottish widow and began to travel extensively and enjoy his fame. In addition to his knighthood, Davy was made a baronet (a British hereditary title of honor) in 1818 for his service to the mining industry and was elected president of the prestigious Royal Society in 1820. In his conflicts with other scientists, however, Davy made some enemies who thought he was arrogant.

Ill health began to plague Davy while he was still in his thirties. The same curiosity that drove him to discover and invent with such success had also taken its toll on his body. By sniffing and tasting unknown chemicals, he had poisoned his system; his eyes had also been damaged in a laboratory explosion. Although Davy continued to pursue scientific interests, he suffered a stroke at age forty-nine and died just two years later.

User Contributions:

Very useful for my college project! I think the info is accurate.
Tom Davy
Excellent short article about my great-great-great Uncle.
The Davy men have not changed over the years, we are still brilliant and arrogant.

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