Discoverer of Elements; Pioneer in Electrolysis
Davy was born on December 17, 1778, to a woodcarver’s family in Cornwall, England. When his father died, Davy was forced to find a job to help support the family. He apprenticed to an apothecary, or druggist, who exposed him to the world of chemistry. Later Davy worked for a physician who studied the effects of various gases on patients. During this time he taught himself chemistry by reading texts by contemporary scientists such as ANTOINE LAVOISIER.
In 1798 Davy was appointed chemical superintendent at the Pneumatic Institute in Clifton, England, which conducted investigations into the practical medical applications of gases. There Davy studied the makeup of all kinds of gases and inhaled them to test their effects. He discovered the exhilaration of nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), which he suggested could be used as an anesthetic. He published Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, a report of his findings, in 1800 and was invited to give lectures at the Royal Institute in 1801.
Davy’s work in chemistry expanded to include experiments with elements, acids, and metals. Applying the work of Luigi Galvani and ALLESANDRO VOLTA, he pioneered the use of electrolysis to separate compounds into their respective elements. He published a paper on the properties of electrolysis, “On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity,” in 1806. Davy isolated several elements that had yet to be named, including potassium and sodium in 1807, and borium, strontium, and calcium in 1808. He challenged his idol, Lavoisier, on the idea that all acids contain oxygen by demonstrating that hydrochloric add (then named oxymuriatic acid) was a compound of only two elements: hydrogen and chlorine.
During his life Davy was committed to using science to help society. He designed a safety lamp in 1815 that would not ignite the dangerous methane gases present in coal mines. He also worked on using chemistry to improve agricultural practices.
Davy became influential in the scientific community, especially at the Royal Institute, where he held an honorary professorship. He interviewed MICHAEL FARADAY and was instrumental in his appointment as a laboratory assistant at the Institute in 1813.
During the later years of his life Davy’s health declined, possibly due to exposure to dangerous chemicals. He traveled in Europe, seeking new challenges and better health. Davy died in Switzerland on May 29, 1829.
Humphry Davy’s Legacy
Davy’s rigorous investigative methods, discoveries of new elements, and work with electrolysis expanded the base of knowledge available to future chemists and led to important practical applications still in use today.
Davy’s work had an immediate impact in the field of science. His encouragement of other working class men, especially Faraday, to become scientists helped to weaken the image of science as only a rich man’s game.
In the research arena, Davy challenged the idea that all acids contain oxygen. He used precise experimental means to support his argument. Although it was difficult for many fellow scientists to change their positions, Davy’s irrefutable evidence eventually swayed them. His discovery of potassium, sodium, chlorine, calcium, magnesium, and boron fueled other research as scientists became aware of the new elements and their properties. Nitrous oxide is still used as an anesthetic in dentistry today.
Davy’s experiments with electrolysis led to numerous applications. One of the most important practical applications included its use in determining the electrical affinities of elements. This eventually led to an understanding of bonds and of valence, the property of an element that indicates how many atoms an individual atom can bond with. Electrolysis is used today to separate salt from seawater, a process called desalination. This is an invaluable technology in many areas of the world where fresh water is a scarce resource.
In the public sector his mining lamp saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. It revitalized the dying coal mining industry and made available an important fuel resource. He also worked with the agriculture and tanning industries to find better chemical methods to improve their products.
Humphry Davy – 1778-1829