A remarkable project is drawing to a close, one that has given us new insights into the mind of one of history’s greatest chemists: Humphry Davy. Over 3500 volunteers have transcribed 83 notebooks that had been sitting in the archives of the Royal Institution, unable to reach a wider audience. And they give us unprecedented access to the thoughts and ideas of one of the 19th century’s most celebrated scientists. These include how he felt when inebriated and high on nitrous oxide. His excitement after discovering a new element – a frequent experience for him, he discovered more than any person before or since. As well as his sketches and doodles.

Humphry Davy

Source: © Sheila Terry/Science Photo Library

Humphry Davy’s notebooks reveal more than just his dabbling with nitrous oxide

But it’s not all whimsy. Investigation of the notebooks has revealed an unsavoury, lesser-known side of Davy. Here Davy launches petty diatribes against his rivals. There he exploits a young Michael Faraday. Most damningly of all, he expresses the idea that races other than white Europeans were inferior – lazy and incapable of civilisation – a view he expressed from an early age and apparently held all his life. As part of this he talks of physiognomy and racial features, something that echoes the pseudoscience found in ‘scientific racism’. Davy also married into money that was, in part, derived from the slave trade, but had no interest in writing about this live wire issue of his times.

Davy was a man of his time and his attitudes to other races and cultures were not unlike many around him. This does not absolve him of his prejudice, however. William Wilberforce lived during the same period as Davy and his tireless campaign, joined by many others, to abolish slavery shows that it was quite possible to recognise the iniquity of Britain’s role in the slave trade. While Wilberforce’s ideals on slavery have stood the test of time, his views on, for instance, workers’ rights or the role of women in society that stemmed from his religious beliefs have not held up so well. Times change.

What do we do with characters such as Davy in the pantheon of science? Should we judge him by today’s standards or those of the 19th century? Davy was a complicated man with wide-ranging interests – undoubtedly a brilliant chemist and populariser of science. He was also a moderniser in many ways. He was a proponent of education for women and he encouraged them to attend his Royal Institution lectures, which many did. But his views on race and other cultures have no place in modern society and would have been contested by many of his contemporaries of the day. Putting scientists on a pedestal is an error and can only lead to a fall from grace – the heroes of science are as human as the rest of us. Science is not immune from the influences of the time that it’s performed in and if we fail to scrutinise the people who conduct it then we risk making it unwelcoming for many. Davy’s science remains his legacy but the whole picture of the man – flaws and all – should be told.