Biography of Humphry Davy

Sir Humphry Davy

Sir Humphry Davy was a nineteenth century chemist and scientist.

When and Where was he Born?

17th December 1778, Penzance, Cornwall, England.

Family Background:

Humphry Davy was the son of a Penzance wood carver and the eldest of five children.


Truro Grammar School.

Timeline of Sir Humphry Davy:

1794: Death of his father. Became apprenticed to a Surgeon-Apothecary, J. Bingham Borlase in order to try and support his family.

1797: Davy became interested in chemistry after reading Antoine Lavoisier’s “Traite Elementaire”. Released from his apprenticeship he went to become Superintendant at the Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol at the request of Thomas Lovell Bedoes. He made his first reputation studying the medical effects of gases such as Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas). He also found that heat could transfer through a vacuum and that it is a form of motion.

1799: He realised that when two blocks of ice were rubbed together they would melt without the addition of any heat thus disproving the caloric theory of heat.

1800: Davy began to realise the effects on chemicals of electricity. He was aware of Nicholson and Carlisle’s experiment to obtain Hydrogen and Oxygen from Water by means of electricity in a Voltaic Pile first used by Galvani. He realised from his own experiments with electrolysis that chemical compounds were held together by electrical forces.

1801: The Royal Institution in London took Humphrey Davy on as a public lecturer.

Royal Institution, London
The Royal Institution, London

1802: The poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge attends one of his lectures. Davy published a paper with Thomas Wedgwood entitled “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings on Glass and Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrates of Silver”. The pictures produced by this method were, however extremely temporary.

1807: Davy managed to obtain Potassium from molten potash and Sodium from Common Salt by passing a current through them. He published the results in November at his Bakerian lecture.

1808: Through electrolysis he managed to discover Magnesium, Calcium, Barium and Strontium.

1810: Michael Faraday begins attending Davy’s lectures. Davy’s work on Chlorine showed that muriatic or marine acid was made of Chlorine and Hydrogen only thus discounting Lavoisier’s theory that all acids must contain Oxygen.

1811: Faraday sends Humphry Davy a large bound selection of his notes on his lectures which impresses Davy tremendously. Davy took him on as his assistant due to a temporary blindness he had contracted after an explosion in his laboratory the previous year. (Davy was later to twice block Faraday’s election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society some say from professional jealousy).

1812: Davy received a Knighthood. He marries Jan Apreece on11th April, a rich Scottish Widow.

1813: He built a giant battery in the basement of the Royal Society of London made up of two thousand plates and taking up nearly 900 square feet of space. Davy then toured Europe with his new wife and his assistant Faraday.

1815: Returned to England. Invented the Miner’s Safety Lamp which would burn safely even if there was an explosive mixture of methane and air present in a mine. Davy did not patent his lamp and some say that George Stephenson created the lamp first but that is disputed. Davy made Iodine Pentoxide for the first time, an odourless, colourless substance of high density.

1824: Faraday eventually becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

1825: Hans Christian Oersted first successfully isolated Aluminium despite Davy’s first failed attempts. It is interesting that the United States took on Davy’s name for this metal (Aluminum) whereas everywhere else Aluminium is used.

1827: Davy became seriously ill and this was said to have been caused by the many gasses that he had inhaled over the years.

1829: He moved to Rome in order to regain his health.

When and Where did Davy Die?

29th May 1829, Geneva, Switzerland after he had had a stroke.

Age at Death:


Written Works:

1799: “Researches Chemical and Physical”
1812 : “Elements of Chemical Philosophy”.
1813: “Elements of Agricultural Chemistry”.


11th April 1812 to Jan Apreece, a rich Scottish Widow.

Site of Grave:

Plain Palais Cemetery, Geneva, Switzerland.

Places of Interest:




Science Museum.
Royal Institution.
London Zoo (Davy was a founder of the Zoological Society).