The English chemist Sir Humphry Davy, b. Dec. 17, 1778, d. May 29, 1829, invented the safety lamp for miners and was the first to apply electrical current to isolate alkali metals and alkaline earth metals. After receiving a grammar school education, he was apprenticed to a surgeon and began medical studies, turning to chemistry in 1797. He attracted the attention of Thomas Beddoes, who appointed him to the Pneumatic Institution to study the physiological effects of new gases. In 1800, Davy published a description of the effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and an account of his nearly fatal inhalation of water gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. In 1801, Davy was appointed to the then newly established Royal Institution as lecturer, and in 1802 he was advanced to professor.


Davy's chemical lectures and demonstrations were brilliantly presented and became a fashionable social event. He also lectured and wrote a book on agricultural chemistry and presented the first systematic geology course offered in England. His first Bakerian Lecture won a prize from Napoleon, even though France and England were at war.


Sir Humphry Davy

Davy used electrolysis to obtain elemental potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium, and magnesium in 1808. He obtained boron simultaneously with Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. He also showed that oxygen could not be obtained from the substance known as oxymuriatic acid and proved the substance to be an element, which he named chlorine. This explanation refuted Antoine Lavoisier's oxygen theory of acids.

Much of Davy's subsequent research involved making new compounds of chlorine with nitrogen, phosphorus, and oxygen. In 1812 he was knighted, gave a farewell lecture to the Royal Institution, and married a wealthy widow. He resigned from the Royal Institution in 1813 and traveled on the continent with his wife and young Michael Faraday. Davy returned to London to study flames, and during this time invented what came to be called the Davy safety lamp. He was made a baronet in 1818.

Ralph Gable


Bibliography: Craven, G. J., The Scientific Achievements of Sir Humphry Davy (1930); Hartley, Sir Harold, Humphry Davy (1966); Knight, David, Humphry Davy, Science and Power (1992); Treneer, Anne, The Mercurial Chemist: A Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1963).



Last modified on: Thursday, October 30, 1997.