Humphry Davy -life beyond the lamp

Humphry Davy -life beyond the lamp
Raymond Lamont Brown
Stroud,UK: Sutton Publishing 2004 | Pp 199 | ?18.99 (HB) | ISBN 0750932317
Reviewed by Michael Sutton

Humphry Davy

Jons Jacob Berzelius declared that if Humphry Davy had received systematic training he would have advanced chemistry by a century, but that lacking it, he produced only ’brilliant fragments’. The Swedish scientist probably harboured a grudge - Davy kept him waiting for two days while lingering over a fishing expedition - but there is some truth in his judgement. Davy worked in bursts of intense activity, making spectacular advances, but never developing a new theoretical system. Nevertheless, he remains one of chemistry’s heroes: the first to isolate potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, strontium and barium; and to affirm the elementary nature of chlorine. His meteoric career has attracted many authors. David Knight’s 1996 work, Humphry Davy: science and power, remains the definitive biography, but Lamont-Brown’s concise and accessible book fills a useful niche, combining an illuminating overview of Davy’s scientific discoveries with a colourful picture of the man and his times.

Lamont-Brown highlights the formative influences of Davy’s Cornish childhood, and of his youthful friendship with Coleridge and Wordsworth. Davy’s work on the safety lamp, his research for industry and the government, and his presidency of the Royal Society are also discussed. His recreational activities are not neglected, and there is a vivid picture of Jane Apreece, the wealthy intellectual widow who became Lady Davy shortly after Humphry was knighted in 1811. However, Davy’s relationship with Michael Faraday, his assistant, and eventual successor as professor at the Royal Institution, is lightly sketched and Davy’s jealous attempt to block Faraday’s election to the Royal Society is glossed over. Lamont-Brown admits that snobbery was one of Davy’s numerous failings, but seems reluctant to contrast him with Faraday, who was certainly as great a scientist, and arguably a more admirable person.