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Biography of Humphry Davy

Portrait of 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. Davy becomes apprenticed to a Surgeon-Apothecary, J. Bingham Borlase in order to try and support his family.

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

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

1800: Davy begins 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 realises from his own experiments with electrolysis that chemical compounds are held together by electrical forces.

1801: The Royal Institution in London takes 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 publishes 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 are, however extremely temporary.

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

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

1810: Michael Faraday begins attending Davy’s lectures. Davy’s work on Chlorine shows that muriatic or marine acid is made of Chlorine and Hydrogen 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 takes him on as his assistant due to a temporary blindness he has 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 receives a Knighthood. He marries Jan Apreece on 11th April, a rich Scottish Widow.

1813: He builds 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 tours Europe with his new wife and his assistant Faraday however his wife treats him like a servant.

1815: He returns to England. He invents the Miner’s Safety Lamp which burns safely even if there is 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 makes 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 isolates Aluminium despite Davy’s first failed attempts. It is interesting that the United States takes on Davy’s name for this metal (Aluminum) whereas everywhere else the term Aluminium is used.

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

1829: He moves to Rome in order to regain his health but dies later at Geneva.

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).