Sir Humphrey Davy - his early life

Davy was a colourful character! When his father, who was a woodcarver, died, he left very substantial debts but despite this Humphrey managed to get an education at Truro Grammar School, after which he got an apprenticeship as a trainee apothecary. He was well suited to this because of his love of science and chemistry in particular and he came to the notice of the Deputy Lieutenant of Cornwall, Davies Giddy. He in turn had a friend called Thomas Beddoes, a chemist who was working on the use of various gases, including nitrous oxide, for clinical purposes. he needed an assistant and Davy got the job.

He got perhaps a little too involved with it! His experiments with carbon monoxide nearly kill him and he developed a liking for nitrous oxide; what we often call laughing gas. In the same way that young people have been known to sniff glue during our own time, he persuaded several of his friends to do the same with nitrous oxide and some of the demonstrations he gave at the Royal Institution were hazardous to say the least. His friends were mainly radicals and poets who had a somewhat different outlook on life than that of the majority of people; and Davy, subjected to a deluge of flattery from these friends, came to consider himself a better man than just about everyone else. Sometimes this can be an asset; all too often it is a liability.

As a larger-than-life character, however, he quickly became a popular lecturer at the Royal Institution, not least of all because of the dangerous experiments he conducted there in the lecture theatre, including filling it with nitrous oxide! Fortunately there was just a lot of ribald laughter as a result and no fatalities. However these lectures on chemistry encouraged the institution to create possibly the finest laboratory in Britain and it was there that Davy first isolated the metals sodium and potassium by electrolysis. Not only had he increased knowledge of electrochemical processes but he also was the first person to use the facilities there for purely scientific research, rather than the propagation of knowledge. He soon became Professor of Chemistry.

Within a short period he had been knighted by the Prince Regent, and then married to a wealthy widow. He now had no need of an income but the managers of the Institute did not want to lose him and he was asked to stay on as director of the laboratory, and honorary Professor of Chemistry. His status at the Institute grew and he continued to have a great deal of influence over it.