Science and Celebrity: Humphry Davy’s Rising Star

Davy using a voltaic battery to experiment with the decomposition of alkilis

Davy using a voltaic battery to experiment with the decomposition of alkilis

Moving up in London

Davy’s reception in London was mixed. The London aristocracy was not immediately receptive to Davy’s seemingly rough, provincial ways. Count Rumford himself was reported to have at first found Davy repulsive.

But the audiences loved him. On 25 April 1801 Davy delivered his first public lecture at the Royal Institution. His excitement over recent advances in electricity made for a clear choice in subject: Davy’s demonstration was on the power of galvanism, or electricity produced by chemical means, to cause movement in the amputated legs of frogs and to catalyze the isolation of metals from aqueous acids. The lecture was a tremendous success. Davy’s flair for the theatrical, coupled with his scientific advances, brought him accolades, and Coleridge attended, adding to the celebrity cachet. Despite a rustic education, radical political associations, and appearances of social climbing, Davy was well regarded at the Royal Society: he was elected a fellow in 1803 and one of two secretaries in 1807.

By June 1808 Davy was 29 years old, handsome, well-connected, and acknowledged by his peers and most of fashionable society as brilliant. His notoriety as an abuser of nitrous oxide who held onto his coarse country ways only added to his élan.

Later that same year, two days shy of his 30th birthday, Humphry Davy gave his third Bakerian award lecture in the main theater of the Royal Society. In this lecture Davy announced his discovery of yet another element by the decomposition of boric acid: boron. (That same year boron was also independently isolated by the French chemists Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac and Louis Jacques Thénard.)

An Accomplished and Revered Figure

After 1808 Davy’s celebrity and notoriety only increased. Davy’s lectures were ever better attended, and he gave five Bakerian award lectures at the Royal Society from 1806 to 1810 and a sixth toward the end of his life in 1826.

In 1812 Davy was knighted, gave a farewell lecture to the Royal Institution, and married a wealthy bluestocking widow, Jane Apreece. Davy’s bride was well known in London’s social and literary circles (she was the cousin of Sir Walter Scott), and the marriage was much discussed among fellow socialites. After a few years the marriage was widely known to be acrimonious and was cause for gossip and ridicule.

Also in 1812 a series of laboratory explosions from experiments with nitrogen trichloride caused temporary damage to Davy’s eyesight. He thus hired the young Michael Faraday, a bookbinding apprentice who, like Davy himself, had a great appetite for research but no university training. In 1819 Davy was awarded a baronetcy, an honor unprecedented for a natural philosopher, and in 1820 he became president of the Royal Society, a post he held until he was succeeded by his Cornish benefactor, Davies Gilbert, in 1827.

Coleridge wrote of Davy in 1801 that “chemistry tends…to turn it’s [sic] Priests into Sacrifices.” Like Joseph Priestley, another of chemistry’s priests-turned-sacrifice, Sir Humphry Davy eventually left his native England, never to return. He died of heart failure in Switzerland in 1829, at the age of 50. He had become a social celebrity and scientific luminary despite his self-made education and unusual background among London’s academic elite. But he was never entirely able to shed his reputation as a stranger. In fact, Davy’s outsider status—the very fodder for criticism, gossip, and speculation—made him all the more noteworthy to an enraptured public. It may have been the very thing that made him a spectacular star.

Davy’s electrochemical experiments, the decomposition and quantification of minerals and other compounds into their fundamental elements, were vital to the development of electrochemistry, including the work of Michael Faraday in the mid-19th century and Walther Nernst, Paul Héroult, and Charles Hall in the late 19th century. His 1808 lectures unveiling the isolation of barium, strontium, calcium, magnesium, and boron marked a whirlwind moment of theatricality, celebrity, and scientific advance, and an important milestone in the history of chemistry.

T. K. Kenyon holds a Ph.D. in virology and is the author of two novels, Rabid and Callous, that explore science, religion, consciousness, and the nature of good and evil.