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Humphry Davy, a Penzance prodigy

The Pharmaceutical Journal Vol 265 No 7128p920-921, December 23/30, 2000 Christmas miscellany

Peter Cooper FRPharmS

On December 17, 1778, a first son, Humphry, was born to Robert Davy of Ludgvan, in what is now called Market Jew Street, Penzance. Humphry’s mother Grace came of the Millett family from nearby St Just-in-Penwith. Robert had been brought up in the household of an uncle who was a close friend of the celebrated antiquary William Borlase, and had become a wood carver and guilder of repute. Grace ? who was orphaned at an early age ? had been in the guardianship of John Tonkin, a surgeon and apothecary of Penzance, with whom Humphry spent much of his childhood, dividing his time between his parent?s home in Ludgvan and Tonkin?s in Penzance, some two-and-a-half miles distant. At the age of five, Humphry was remarkably apt at reading, and could skim through a volume rapidly and yet be able to give an account of its contents afterwards. One of his early favourites was ?Pilgrim?s progress?.
The master of his preparatory school, Mr Bushell was impressed with Humphry?s talent, and since he was able to offer little more than reading and writing, recommended that he be sent to Penzance grammar school, whither he went at the tender age of six. The Rev Mr Coryton, under whose supervision he then passed, was a sadistic and capricious man, whom Humphry?s younger brother John later described as “a man of irregular habits, and ill fitted for the office of teaching youth, and as deficient in good method as in sound scholarship”. The other pupils enjoyed Humphry?s ghost stories based on local legends and on the Arabian Nights, and he made his entry into chemistry by manufacturing fireworks, notably something he called “thunder powder”, which he exploded on a flat stone for their delight.
He was at the time residing with Dr Tonkin, to avoid a long journey home, and rather scandalised that gentleman by performing spectacular experiments in the garret-room he occupied. Meanwhile he made a lamp from a hollowed-out turnip, with which he smelted fragments of tin ore prevalent in the vicinity.
On a quieter note, Humphry took a lively interest in local natural history, and made a collection of stuffed birds as well as doing some fishing and shooting on his vacations. He wandered round the mining areas of Penwith, collecting mineral and rock samples. He was also enthusiastic over the magnificent scenery in his locality, and was fond of climbing to Carn Galva near Pendeen, with its breathtaking views. He kept sketching and writing, and composing verses of no mean merit. He once produced a local pantomime in which he played the part of Harlequin. In 1793 he went to Truro for a short while, to finish his education under Rev Cornelius Cardew, where, although he wrote some excellent Latin verse, he took little interest in classical writings. “After all,”he wrote to his mother, “the way we are taught Latin and Greek does not much influence the important structure of our minds.”He was glad to leave Cardew.
On the death of his father in 1794 and the removal of his mother to run, together with a young French woman, a millinery business in Penzance, the turning point in Humphry?s life was when he became apprenticed to an eminent local physician, John Bingham Borlase and started to find the attraction of science. He studied two texts in chemistry, Lavoisier?s ?Elements of chemistry? (1789) and William Nicholson?s ?Dictionary of chemistry? (1795). With equipment modified from medical apparatus and domestic utensils he prepared minerals to make pigments for his painting and tried to discover the gaseous content of seaweed bladders, collecting his raw materials during walks to Marazion, where an aunt lived. But it was not until he was taken to see a laboratory in Hayle belonging to Dr Edwards, who became chemistry lecturer at St Bartholomew?s hospital in London, that he began to appreciate the merits of a well-appointed workplace. The friend who introduced him to Edwards was Davies Gilbert, formerly Davies Giddy, who also knew a one-time Oxford professor, Thomas Beddoes, who had been victimised on account of his political opinions and was thinking of establishing his pneumatic institution in Bristol, for the treatment of chest diseases. Beddoes needed an assistant to supervise his laboratory, and Gilbert recommended Davy. He was not fond of surgery, and glad to be relieved of his remaining apprenticeship. Beddoes was impressed with some work done by Davy on light and heat, and invited him to join the Bristol venture.
Humphry wrote to his mother on arrival in Clifton: “Our house is capacious and handsome; my rooms are very large, nice and convenient; and, above all, I have an excellent laboratory.”Beddoes himself he found very poor company, but kindly Mrs Anna Beddoes took him under her wing and showed him all the fine sights of the locality. It was under such circumstances that Davy undertook his celebrated researches into gases, particularly the oxides of nitrogen. In 1799 a notice in the Bristol Gazette announced that the new medical institution in Dowry Square was open for outpatient treatment to “persons in Consumption, Asthma, Palsy, Dropsy, obstinate Venereal Complaints, Scrofula or King?s Evil, and other diseases which ordinary means have failed to remove… . Attendance will be given from Eleven till One o?clock by Thomas Beddoes or Humphry Davy.”It was a great success, yet Humphry preferred working in He experimented with all the gases he could lay his hands on, and several times came near to ending his own life.
Humphry first became interested in nitrous oxide in 1798 when he came across a paper by a New York professor, Samuel Mitchell, who pronounced it a factor in inducing sepsis in wounds. Davy had exposed animal tissues to the gas, generated from nitrous acid zinc, but found no evidence that it caused sepsis. When he ventured to inhale the gas he experienced giddiness but nothing else. Beddoes was interested in the sepsis angle, and encouraged Davy to experiment further. Many literary notables of Davy?s acquaintance, including Coleridge, Southey, Kinglake, Roget, Blake and Watt, entered into the spirit of the nitrous oxide experiments. One who refused to participate, Joseph Cottle, reported: “Beddoes persuaded a courageous young lady to breathe out of his pretty green bag this delightful nitrous oxide; after a few inspirations, to the astonishment of everybody, the young lady dashed out of the house, when, racing down the square, she leaped over a great dog in the way, but being hotly pursued by the fleetest of her friends, the fair fugitive, or rather the temporary maniac, was at length overtaken and secured without further damage.”The effect of such pranks on the staid inhabitants of Clifton is not recorded, but cannot have helped the reputation of the establishment.
Meanwhile, no gas was immune from Humphry?s inhalation experiments, and he recorded his personal sensations. Pure carbon monoxide nearly killed him, but after inhaling nitrous oxide and oxygen he recovered, at the cost of giddiness, nausea and headaches. Undiluted carbon dioxide produced laryngeal spasm, but when diluted it promoted sleep. Nitric oxide was a serious menace. This, wrote Davy, “produced a spasm of the epiglottis so painful as to oblige me to desist instantly. When I opened my lips to inspire common air, nitric acid was instantly formed in my mouth, which burnt the tongue and palate, injured the teeth, and produced an inflammation of the mucous membrane which lasted some time… . I never design to repeat so rash an experiment.”

Roving commission

Humphry Davy was not sorry when an opportunity offered for him to leave the uncongenial company of Beddoes. In 1801, at the instance of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, he went to reside at the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street as lecturer for a fee of 100 guineas per annum. He was given a roving commission to study such chemically based pursuits as tanning and agriculture, and in 1802 he was appointed professor of chemistry. He took much interest in light and galvanic electricity. He wrote to his friend Davies Gilbert in 1802: “I have lately had constructed for the laboratory of the institution a battery of immense size; it consists of 400 plates of five inches in diameter and 40 of a foot in diameter. By means of it I have been able to inflame cotton, sulphur, rosin, oil and ether; it fuses platinous wire and makes red hot and burns several inches of iron wire of 1/300 inch diameter; it easily causes fluid substances such as oil and water to boil, decompounds them, and converts them into gases.”When this battery broke down, after heavy use, it was replaced by an even bigger one paid for by public subscription. This equipment enabled Davy to isolate the elements potassium and sodium from their melted hydroxides. At about the same time he worked on a photographic technique, originally devised by Thomas Wedgwood, for printing pictures from glass on to leather treated with silver nitrate. He obtained prints from various transparent originals, but was deterred from further investigations by finding that he could not fix the prints against the effects of light.
From what we learn from contemporaries, Humphry was incredibly careless in his laboratory work, despite the fact that he experimented with very hazardous materials. He made a habit of carrying out several investigations simultaneously, and often hummed tunes to himself as he worked. He worked at breakneck speed, and often broke his equipment in the process. It is surprising that he did not suffer more setbacks to his health than he did. When he suffered a mysterious illness in 1807 some people attributed it to barium intoxication, since Davy was experimenting with the isolation of that element at the time. Davy himself thought it was gaol fever, brought on by some work he undertook in Newgate with the object of improving its ventilation. Subsequent commentators have suggested that he may have been undergoing work stress, something which went unrecognised in his time.
To assist in his bench work, Davy engaged Michael Faraday, a former bookbinder?s assistant, who rather eclipsed his benefactor when it came to public demonstrations. This was an excellent move for Faraday, but is reputed to have induced a degree of jealousy in Davy, who about this time was appointed secretary of the Royal Society. When Faraday was forwarded for election to the Royal Society, Davy voted with the opposition. And later, when Humphry went on his first continental tour, by favour of Napoleon, taking Faraday and a portable laboratory with him, his personal valet refused to accompany him, and Faraday was allotted the duty, which was regarded as demeaning under the circumstances.
Meanwhile, some hazardous experiments were in the offing. In 1812, shortly before he was knighted and married a rich widow, Jane Apreece, Davy received a letter from Amp?re in Paris, who had become interested in nitrogen trichloride. Amp?re related that Dulong had recently lost a finger and an eye though handling that explosive compound. Davy could not resist so tempting a study, and reacted ammonia with chlorine. While studying a quantity “scarcely as large as a grain of mustard seed”he produced a violent flash and an explosion, which shattered his reaction vessel and embedded fragments of glass in his cornea. He then enlisted the help of Faraday, who wrote to his friend Abbott that the pair of experimenters had produced no less than four violent explosions with nitrogen trichloride. “The experiment was repeated again with a larger portion of the substance,”he wrote. “It stood for a moment or two and then exploded with a fearful noise; both Sir H. and I had masks on, but I escaped this time the best. Sir H. had his face cut in two places about the chin, and a violent blow on the forehead struck through a considerable thickness of silk and leather; and with this experiment he has for the present concluded.”


However, Humphry had not finished with the halides of nitrogen. When he met Amp?re personally later during a continental tour he was presented with a specimen of an element recently isolated from seaweed by Courtois, and called iodine. He performed parallel experiments with iodine and ammonia and produced the detonating nitrogen triiodide, not so touchy as the trichloride, but still spectacular, as has since been discovered by generations of college chemistry students. With French scientists other than Amp?re, Davy seems to have been different, and this character change has been noted to his discredit.
Indeed, Humphry became less approachable after his admission to high society and his succession to Sir Joseph Banks as president of the Royal Society. He encountered considerable criticism over his discovery of the miners? safety lamp, which the friends of George Stephenson, another claimant, disputed, leading to some ill-advised arguments in public. And when a scheme he had devised for arresting corrosion of the copper used to shield the hulls of naval vessels by adding a fragment of iron was dismissed as useless by the Admiralty he was again disturbed.
By this time Davy had grown fiercely autocratic, possibly because his health was deteriorating. When he went on another continental tour through France and Italy, studying volcanic activity and Roman manuscripts, during which he wrote his last work ?Consolations in travel, or the last days of a philosopher? he arrived in Geneva, where he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on May 29, 1829. He had expressed a fear of premature burial, and his wishes for delay after his death were in part respected, despite the strict laws of Geneva, by a delay of three days in his burial.
The sentiments expressed by Humphry Davy in a letter to his friend Thomas Poole in 1810 have a curiously modern ring to our ears. “The true political maxim is that the good of the whole community is the good of every individual; but how few statesmen have been guided by this principle! In almost all governments the plan has been to sacrifice one part of the community to the other parts; sometimes the people to the aristocracy; at other times the aristocracy to the people; sometimes the colonies to the mother country, and at other times the mother country to the colonies.”Sad, but still true!

Peter Cooper is a freelance pharmaceutical writer

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 20003900

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