The statue of Penzance’s most famous son looks east down Market Jew Street, where he was born on this day in 1778. But it also looks further east, past St Michael’s Mount, across the Tamar and upcountry, where he made his name, and then across the sea to where he ended his days.
His parents were not particularly well-off, although they could afford to send Humphry to Penzance Grammar School and then to finish at Truro Grammar School. By all accounts Davy was an indifferent scholar and made little impression on his teachers. When his father died he was apprenticed to a Penzance surgeon in 1795. There, he taught himself the rudiments of chemistry, as well as learning French, the language of the pre-eminent scientists of his day. More importantly, he made useful contacts, such as Davies Gilbert.
It was through Gilbert that he came to the attention of Thomas Beddoes at Bristol. Beddoes invited him to join his Pneumatic Institute, which was investigating the use of gases in medicine. While at Bristol Davy experimented with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and identified its possible use as an anaesthetic. He also almost killed himself by deliberately inhaling carbon monoxide to test its effects.
As well as lacking much concern for health and safety, science in those days was less specialised and Davy counted among his friends at Bristol the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while writing some romantic poetry himself.
In 1801, aged just 23, he was offered a post as assistant lecturer at the Royal Institution in London, established two years previously. It was Davy’s public lectures that brought him to wider attention. It secured invitations to all the best dinner parties, as well a full lectureship within a year.
A flood of discoveries followed thick and fast. Davy used electrolysis to isolate calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, proved that chlorine was an element and re-assessed the nature of heat. In 1804 he was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, the main scientific institution of the time. In 1812 he was knighted and became a baronet in 1818. During the war with France in 1813 Davy, accompanied by his wife and his assistant, Michael Faraday, even journeyed to France, invited by the French Government to receive a medal for his electro-chemical work. This accolade crowned a career largely spent demolishing French theories on heat.
Back from the continent Davy found time for his most well-known invention, the safety lamp. This ultimately saved many lives in coal mines, preventing the recurrence of disasters such as that at Felling Colliery near Newcastle in 1812, when 92 men lost their lives in a massive explosion.
Davy was elected President of the Royal Society in 1820, but he never managed to reconcile the jealousies and feuds within it between the old gentleman-amateurs and the new professional academic scientists. His own manner, sometimes irritable while careless of etiquette, didn’t help.
Ultimately, he was felled by two strokes in 1826 and 1829, the second eventually ending his life. One of Cornwall’s most famous sons, he spent most of his life beyond its borders. Interestingly, his voluminous writings display little explicit reference to his Cornish identity, apart from some whimsical and over-romanticised poetry about the landscape.