Humphry Davy: Enlightenment Chemist, Poet, Social Climber

Fellow in Focus
Tuesday, November 9, 2021
5:30 p.m.–6:30 p.m. EST (UTC -5)

The Fall 2021 Fellow in Focus lecture will be presented by Cain Senior Fellow Frank James, who will examine Davy’s extraordinary career trajectory from provincial obscurity to metropolitan fame.

DM 2.4 REV Davy Portrait

Humphry Davy

Portrait of Humphry Davy by artist Thomas Lawrence, ca. 1821.

Wikimedia Commons

Humphry Davy (1778–1829) is probably best known today for his invention of a miners’ safety lamp in 1815 and for isolating and naming the chemical elements sodium and potassium in 1807. But to his contemporaries, he was far more than that. 

In this lively and engaging virtual lecture, you’ll learn how the son of a bankrupt yeoman farmer became a professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution, president of the Royal Society of London, and one of the eight elected foreign associates of the Académie des Sciences. 

James will explore several themes that persisted throughout Davy’s life, including an overweening social ambition that helped with his career trajectory and led to him becoming indifferent, indeed sometimes hostile, to other people’s needs. He’ll also discuss Davy’s storied marriage to the very wealthy daughter of an Antiguan merchant, his devotion to chemical experimentation, and his interest in writing poetry, which brought him into close contact with literary luminaries like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Join us in a virtual toast to the many lessons we can glean from Davy’s life, including the fact that there is no defined path to having a scientific career. After all, Humphry Davy’s best skill may have been knowing how to take maximum advantage of the circumstances he found himself in.

About Frank James

Frank James is a professor of the history of science at University College London, having worked previously at the Royal Institution. His main research concentrates on the physical sciences in the late-18th and 19th centuries and how they relate to other areas of society and culture such as art, literature, business, media, religion, technology, and the military. He edited the Correspondence of Michael Faraday, published in six volumes between 1991 and 2012, and a number of essay collections, including “The Common Purposes of Life,” a set of papers on the Royal Institution. His book, Michael Faraday: A Very Short Introduction, was published in 2010 by Oxford University Press, which the following year published his sesquicentenary edition of Faraday’s Chemical History of a Candle. James’s current research is on the practical work of Humphry Davy, including his work on nitrous oxide, agricultural chemistry, mineralogy, the miners’ safety lamp, analysis of ancient Roman pigments, and his attempts to unroll chemically the papyri excavated from Herculaneum. He has published on many of these topics, and has also talked about them in meetings and on radio and television.

About Fellow in Focus

The Rohm and Haas Fellow in Focus Lecture series gives the Institute’s scholars an opportunity to present their work to a broad audience interested in history, science, and culture. Fellow in Focus lectures are presented by the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry.