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Humphry Davy

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Humphry Davy (1778-1829)

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet, FRS MRIA (Born::December 17, 1778Died::May 29, 1829) was an English chemist who discovered several elements including sodium and potassium and became a strong proponent of the scientific method. Davy’s science was fuelled by questions about life, matter, God, thought and immortality. [1]


He was born in Penzance on December 17, 1778. After going to school in Truro, Davy became an apprentice to a Penzance surgeon, J. Bingham Borlase. In 1797 he took up chemistry and was taken on as an assistant to Thomas Beddoes. He later became the chemical superintendent of the Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol where he did experiments with different types of new gases.

He published an account of his works in his book titled Researches, Chemical and Philosophical (1799), after which his reputation was immediately established and he was appointed as a lecturer at the Royal Institution. He was a talented teacher and his lectures attracted large audiences. In 1806 Humphry Davy published On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity, for which he received the Napoleon Prize from the Institut de France the following year. In 1807, he discovered that alkalis and alkaline earths are compound substances created by oxygen united with metallic bases.

Statue of Humphry Davy in Penzance.

By now Davy was considered to be Britain's top scientist. Along with his assistant, Michael Faraday, Davy traveled about investigating his theory of volcanic action. In 1815 Davy invented a safety lamp to be used in gassy coalmines. This lamp allowed deep coal seams to be mined even in the presence of methane. In the same year George Stephenson, who was working in a colliery near Newcastle, also made a safety lamp. Both claimed that they were first to come up with this invention and idea.

One of the most important contributions Humphry Davy made was that he encouraged workers to take a scientific look and approach at their methods. He also helped develop the science of thermokinetics. His helpful discoveries in chemistry helped to improve several industries including agriculture, mining and tanning. Humphry Davy died on May 29, 1829 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Davy's science was motivated by questions about life, matter, God, thought, and immortality. He adamantly believed that the highest end of human existence is intellectual achievement and that to intellectually penetrate the secrets of God's universe is the highest achievement of all. [2]

Sir Humphry Davy once said: Scientists were rated as great heretics by the church, but they were truly religious men because of their faith in the orderliness of the universe. Source: Consolations in Travel—Dialogue V—The Chemical Philosopher

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