Biographies & Memoirs


Davy on the Gas


During the late 1790s Joseph Banks started to get controversial reports of chemical experiments being carried out at a so-called ‘Pneumatic Institute’ in the Hotwells district of Bristol. They were being organised by Dr Thomas Beddoes, a one-time lecturer from Oxford, who had frequently applied to the Royal Society for subsidy. Despite recommendations from the Duchess of Devonshire and James Watt of the Lunar Society, Banks reluctantly turned down these requests, partly on the grounds that these experiments involved human patients breathing various kinds of gas, in ways which were too controversial to support. But he was also influenced by Dr Beddoes’s known radical sympathies.

However, by 1800 Banks had become greatly interested in one of Beddoes’s young assistants, a chemist from Cornwall, Humphry Davy. Although only twenty-one years old, Davy had already published several papers on chemistry, a book of Researches, and made numerous contributions to Nicholson’s Journal. He was said to have an outstandingly brilliant and original mind. He even wrote poetry. When Davy came to London in February 1801 to be interviewed for a possible new post at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, Banks summoned him to one of his breakfasts in Soho Square.1

Sir Joseph met a very unusual young man. Davy was small, volatile, bright-eyed, and bursting with energy and talk. He had measured the cubic capacity of his own lungs, which was vast, especially since he was only five foot five tall, with a chest, which he had also measured, of a mere twenty-nine inches. He spoke English with a Cornish accent, and French with a Breton accent. Though he had never been abroad, he was completely up to date with the latest French chemistry, and was gratifyingly critical of Lavoisier’s work on oxygen and ‘caloric’ in the Traité Élémentaire de Chimie of 1789.

Although Davy had attended a grammar school in Truro, and was briefly apprenticed to a physician in Penzance, he was very largely selftaught. He had never been to university, though he told Banks that he always intended to take a medical degree at Oxford. He never had the background in mathematics that shaped the scientific thinking of Newton and Cavendish. Like his contemporaries John Dalton (from Manchester), William Wordsworth (from Cumberland) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (from Somerset), he always retained strong regional roots.

Banks would come to know a man who loved the high society of London, but was never at home in it, and was often mocked behind his back as a provincial. Davy’s patterns of thought, and methods of work, remained highly original and individualistic. He was impulsive, charming and arrogant. Though physically small, he had huge intellectual ambitions. He was a solitary man who was also an incorrigible flirt. He believed passionately in his own ‘genius’-a word he used constantly-and in the future of English science. Banks sometimes concluded that Humphry Davy thought these two things were identical; and that very possibly he was right.

Davy was born in Penzance, Cornwall, on 17 December 1778. Penzance was then a tiny seaside town, remote and isolated in the extreme southwest of rural England, dependent largely on fishing and the business of the local tin mines. Its population was below 3,000. Both fish and slabs of stamped tin were sold in the high street, known as Market Jew Street. There were several churches and Wesleyan chapels, many small dark taverns and a local school; but no theatre or learned institutions, except a small subscription library. (This would eventually become the famous Morrabic Library). The front rooms of many of the houses were still floored with beaten earth or sand. On windy days the sound of the breaking sea and the rattle of rigging could be heard in every street.2

Eighteenth-century Cornwall was still regarded as being as remote and barbaric as the Scottish Highlands: it was renowned for its fishermen, adventurers, smugglers and (most recently) mining engineers, and also for its rich, creamy, incomprehensible accent. The coach journey to London, which skirted Dartmoor and passed through Exeter and Bristol, covered nearly three hundred miles and took at least three days-and then only if the weather was good. Bad weather could easily cut Penzance off from the rest of the country. Sometimes connections were better by boat, eastwards up the Channel to Plymouth and Southampton; or southwards across the Channel, to northern France and Brittany.

Davy’s father Robert was a Cornish craftsman, who had trained in London as a wood carver and gilder. His grandfather was a builder. His uncle Sampson was a watch-and clock-maker with an original touch: he once made a grandmother clock with eyes that winked open and shut each time it ticked. His mother Grace came from an old mining family from nearby St Just. Though originally from Norfolk, the Davy clan had lived for generations in Penzance and its surrounding hamlets, and their modest tombs were crowded into one corner of Ludgvan churchyard, three miles to the east along the coast.

Robert was a small, genial and unworldly figure, rather disapproved of by the other Davys. He had a reputation as a dreamer and a drinker, ‘thriftless and lax in his habits’.3 In 1782 he unexpectedly inherited a seventy-nine-acre estate of woodlands and marshes called Varfell. It lay immediately south of the village of Ludgvan, with dramatic views of St Michael’s Mount, the rocky island in the bay with its ancient abbey and fortress. Robert decided to build a house there, and to raise his family in the depth of the countryside. He continued his wood carving, invested in a small business, and took on local commissions. One of his carvings, a chimneypiece with two sportive griffins, was made for nearby Ludgvan Rectory. Another, illustrating Aesop’s fable of the fox and the stork, was sold in London and finished up in the Victoria and Albert Museum.4

The wild Varfell estate (its very name full of Celtic echoes) gave Humphry Davy’s childhood an extraordinary freedom and independence. He never forgot it, and would always try to recreate it in adult life, especially in his final years. As a boy he was small for his age, but daring and mischievous. He was soon running wild through the Varfell woods and down to the adjacent Marazion marshes, with their golden bulrushes and plentiful wildfowl. He wandered through the gorse along the seashore opposite St Michael’s Mount, and up into the remote hills behind Penzance. His easy-going father gave him a fishing rod, and then a gun.

He was also allowed to have a dog, Chloe, and eventually a pony called Derby. His taste for country sports, especially shooting and fishing, his intuitive feeling for nature, his love of running water and lyric poetry, were all formed here, and were never forgotten. On one of his birthdays he was allowed to plant an apple tree in the Varfell garden, possibly a local type called the Borlase Pippin, and in honour of Newton and the falling gravity-apple.

Humphry’s mother, Grace, whose family came from St Just, was overwhelmingly important to him. She was one of three Millet sisters who had been adopted by a local Penzance surgeon, John Tonkin, on the sudden death of both of their parents from a fever in June 1757, when she was only seven. Tonkin (1719-1801) was one of the leading figures in the town, an old-fashioned philanthropist who was several times elected mayor.5 Grace remained happily in his household for nearly twenty years, and came to regard him as a father. She married Robert Davy comparatively late, at the age of twenty-six, in 1776. She was the strong, reliable personality who held the family together. Davy was deeply attached to his mother, wrote to her regularly all his life, and kept her informed of all his scientific hopes and triumphs. She in turn, though she never left Penzance, took huge pride in his achievements. Davy eventually had four younger siblings: three sisters (Kitty, Grace and Betsy) and a baby brother, John. The family always remained closely knit. John, twelve years his junior, hero-worshipped him, followed him into medicine, and later became his editor and biographer.

John Tonkin, still acting as the family benefactor, in a way that perhaps suggests Robert’s ineffectiveness as a father, paid for young Davy to attend Penzance Grammar School when he was ten. It was agreed that the boy should lodge in Tonkin’s large house at the top of Market Jew Street, opposite the White Hart Inn, during term-time.6 Hoping he might become a physician, Tonkin also encouraged his interest in every form of natural history: fossils, wild birds and animals, botany, chemical experiments. Years later, engravings of their open-air expeditions, the young Davy skittering beside the aged Tonkin in his large black Quaker hat, became a favourite subject for Davy’s Victorian biographers.

Davy was not remembered as an outstanding pupil. There is some suggestion that he had rebelled against his easy-going father, and that Grace had called in Tonkin to provide much-needed discipline. But he was articulate and adventurous, and became famed for ‘spouting’ stories and poems. His sister Kitty recalled his vivid story-telling, and his staging pantomimes on the back of the carts which were parked at the side of Market Jew Street, known as the Terrace. On summer evenings he would sometimes stand on the porch of the White Hart Inn and deliver ‘speeches’. Later he would secretly make fireworks, and let them off in the street. He was a particular favourite of his maternal grandmother, who had an endless fund of Cornish legends and ghost stories. Indeed, she told him, she had herself lived for many years in a haunted house in St Just.

Curiously enough, Davy would later relate his love of science to this fascination with story-telling. What he always wanted to do was to hold an audience spellbound with wonders: ‘to gratify the passions of my youthful auditors’, as he put it. ‘After reading a few books, I was seized with the desire to narrate…I gradually began to invent, and form stories of my own. Perhaps this passion has produced all my originality. I never loved to imitate, but always to invent: this has been the case in all the sciences I have studied.’ Then he added: ‘Hence many of my errors.7

His holidays were spent at Varfell, rambling, fishing, cliff-climbing and shooting wildfowl all round Mount’s Bay. He was small, quick, witty, impetuous, with something mercurial and secretive about him.

In 1793, when he was fourteen, Davy was sent away to Truro Grammar School, also paid for by John Tonkin (then in his seventies). This was perhaps another attempt to discipline him, but also to give a potentially bright boy a better education. He was taught Latin and some Greek, but no science.

Everything changed in December 1794, with the sudden death of his father Robert, aged only forty-eight. It was caused by ‘an apoplexy’, or a stroke, as Davy would never forget. It was the same year in which the greatest chemist of his generation, Antoine Lavoisier, was guillotined in Paris. Robert left the family in debt to the tune of £1,300, a considerable sum, and the Varfell estate had to be sold. Grace Davy moved the family back to Penzance, started a millinery business with a young refugee Frenchwoman from the Vendée, and took in lodgers. Humphry had to give up his horse, Derby, and shortly after was withdrawn from Truro Grammar School.

Robert was buried in Ludgvan churchyard, and this became a place of secret pilgrimage for Davy. He would walk up the little lane out of Penzance, through Gulval village (where he once stopped to paint the view of St Michael’s Mount), past the low stone farmhouse of Varfell, and climb through the trees to the flint church on its small but commanding eminence. Here he would sit with his back to the tombstones, and look out southwards, beyond the roof of Dr Borlase’s rectory, far across the fields to the cold blue Cornish sea.

One of Davy’s most striking and mysterious poems is set here, in Ludgvan churchyard. It clearly records one such grieving moment, although it may have been written much later, even possibly towards the end of his life. Though grieving, it admits not the least word of Christian comfort. It suggests a purely material philosophy, in which the atoms of his dead ancestors ‘dance in the light of suns’, but no spirit or soul survives. ‘Their spirit gave me no germ/of kindling energy,’ as one fragment says. In fact the unfinished poem feels oddly pagan, ‘primitive’, with a harsh physicality often associated in later Cornish art with the worship of stone, flint and sunlight.

It is also rare among Davy’s poems in that it does not rhyme. It is formed from a plain list of terse factual statements: a list of precise observations, such as one might find in a shorthand account of an experiment in a laboratory notebook.

My eye is wet with tears

For I see the white stones

That are covered with names

The stones of my forefathers’ graves.

No grass grows upon them

For deep in the earth

In darkness and silence the organs of life

To their primitive atoms return.

Through ages the air

Has been moist with their blood

The ages the seeds of the thistle has fed

On what was once motion and form…

Thoughts roll not beneath the dust

No feeling is in the cold grave

They have leaped to other worlds

They are far above the skies.

They kindle in the stars

They dance in the light of suns

Or they live in the comet’s white haze.8

John Tonkin clearly felt that Davy was drifting. It was time for him to make his way in the world. On 10 February 1795, just turned sixteen, he was indentured for seven years to John Bingham Borlase, the leading surgeon-apothecary in Penzance, an old friend of Tonkin’s. Borlase (1752-1813) had his shop at the top of Market Jew Street, next to the White Hart Inn, and was also several times mayor of Penzance. His father had been rector of Ludgvan, a distinguished Cornish antiquary, botanist and Fellow of the Royal Society. One of his many scientific friends was Dr William Oliver, inventor of the Bath Oliver biscuit.

Davy moved back into his mentor Tonkin’s house (just across the street from Borlase’s pharmacy) and was given the run of the attic rooms, one of which he turned into a combined painting studio and laboratory. Tonkin, as generous as ever, supplied him with painting materials, chemicals and some elementary laboratory equipment. In the evenings Davy was given French lessons by one of his mother’s lodgers. Officially this was an emigrant priest, Monsieur Dugast. But he may also have been seeing the young refugee from La Vendée, who was known as Nancy.9

Davy later told his brother John that this was ‘a dangerous period of my life’, and, in a wonderful periphrasis, that he had ‘yielded to the allurements of occasional dissipation’.10 Certainly there were rumours of an entanglement, some heartbreak and many sonnets-none of which has survived, possibly because they were in French. There was also the Prospectus for a slim volume: it would contain ‘eight Odes’, four ‘Cornish Scenes’, and one long romantic verse tale to be called ‘The Irish Lady’.

In this ballad, with skilful displacement, Davy invented a beautiful Irish girl who had fled from Ireland (rather than La Vendée) at the time of the seventeenth-century Protestant persecutions, but was shipwrecked on a rock off Land’s End. Though she was drowned, Cornish fishermen occasionally glimpsed her during storms, sitting half-naked on her rock with a rose in her mouth, luring them to destruction.11 This poem may well refer to Mlle Nancy. But it also belongs to a popular myth or Celtic legend, persistent all along the sea coast of Devon and Cornwall, of the beautiful, fatal woman from over the sea who lures young men to madness or death. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, constructed on Brittany materials, and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, based on local Lyme Regis legend, also belong to this tradition. In Davy’s case the Lady is also alluring him away from science, and this becomes significant in his later life. However, lighter influences show in another long, equally wistful piece, ‘Unfinished Poem on Mount’s Bay’, which plaintively describes Davy’s beloved spaniel, Chloe.

French was certainly the language of love, and suitable for sonnets. But it was also, and just as alluringly, the language of Enlightenment science: the language of Laplace, Lamarck and Cuvier; the language of the Encyclopédie and the Biographie Universelle; the language of the Académie des Sciences, the only scientific body which rivalled the Royal Society in London. Above all it was the language of the greatest chemist of the age, Antoine Lavoisier.

The moment he left school, Davy began to read voraciously. He found he had access to a number of libraries: both Tonkin and Borlase gave him the run of their private collections, a notable privilege for a teenager, and there was the Penzance subscription library. He was also introduced to the son of a wealthy local savant, with the promising name of Davies Giddy. Giddy had studied at Oxford University, and was now living at Marazion, the village by the sea opposite St Michael’s Mount. He had a large scientific library, and on his one afternoon off a week Davy would walk along the shore to borrow books and discuss them avidly.

His reading exploded: classical authors including Homer, Lucretius, Aristotle; English poets including Milton and James Thomson; and French science writers, especially Buffon, Cuvier and Lavoisier. He plunged into William Enfield’s recently published two-volume History of Philosophy (1791), which was in effect a history of European science to date. He later observed wryly of this time: ‘The first step towards the attainment of real discovery was the humiliating confession of ignorance.’12

It is evident that the death of his father, and all the subsequent emotional upheavals, profoundly shook the sixteen-year-old Davy, and started an intellectual ferment that never left him. Besides writing poetry, he also started his first diary, set himself reading lists and work timetables, and began a series of essays on religion versus materialism. During 1796 he wrote an essay ‘On Mathematics’, and another ‘On Consciousness’, which gleefully explored the implications of materialism. He described the body as ‘a fine tuned Machine’, and wrote a syllogistic proof that the ‘soul’ could not exist, since it was said to be eternal and ‘unchangeable’, while every known part of the human body, including the brain, was temporary and changed perpetually. ‘QED the soul does not exist.’13

The experience of ‘paralytic strokes’ (like his father’s), which destroyed ‘perception and Memory’ as well as physical motion, proved that the physical brain was the single centre of ‘all the Mental faculties’. Children were not magically endowed with intelligence and souls at birth. On the contrary: ‘A Child is not superior in Intellectual power to a common earthworm. It can scarcely move at will. It has not even that active instinctive capacity for Self-Preservation.’ Such speculations gave Davy a sense of growing excitement and freedom. He wrote two supreme declarations of faith on page 61 of his working notebook. The first was: ‘Man is capable of an infinite degree of Happiness.’ The second was: ‘The perfectibility of science is absolutely indefinite.’14

When he played billiards with Tonkin, Davy tried to extrapolate the Newtonian laws of motion from the concussion of the balls. He read James Thomson’s great poem The Seasons, and imitated it in his own poem about energy in nature, ‘The Tempest’. A long poem of selfdedication, ‘The Sons of Genius’, went through innumerable drafts, that can be dated anywhere between 1795 and 1799, when it was first published.

To scan the laws of Nature, to explore

The tranquil reign of mild Philosophy:

Or on Newtonian wings to soar

Through the bright regions of the starry sky!

From these pursuits the Sons of Genius scan

The end of their Creation, hence they know

The fair, sublime, immortal hopes of Man,

From whence alone undying pleasures flow.

Theirs is the glory of a lasting Name,

The meed of Genius, and her living fire!

Theirs is the Laurel of eternal flame,

And theirs the sweetness of the Muses’ lyre.15


In 1797 Davy quite suddenly became fascinated by chemistry. The subject, closely linked to radical ideas about the nature of material reality, was going through its own revolution. At this time it was becoming the Romantic science par excellence. The last of the old alchemy was being replaced by true experiments, accurate measuring and weighing, and a new understanding of the fundamental processes of combustion, respiration and chemical bonding.

It was into this exciting new world that Davy was drawn. He could read both the English and the French accounts, which he found were often in contention, and this brought him an added sense of drama and immediacy. His English text was William Nicholson’s Dictionary of Chemistry (1795), a full, solid explanatory work which laid out the current state of the science, how it had emerged from alchemy, and what the future challenges and theories were. His French text was Antoine Lavoisier’s short, elegant and epoch-making Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, originally published in 1789. This developed new theories of ‘oxygen’ and ‘caloric’, a new table of elements, and proposed a whole new system of ‘chemical nomenclature’. Both books came from Davy’s mentor John Tonkin’s library.

Davy saw that the time of alchemists was over, and a great new and revolutionary age of chemical experiment was opening. With intense excitement, he scrawled in his Penzance notebook a ringing declaration of intellectual freedom, which he would later include in his first published essay. ‘Chemistry, which arose from the ruins of alchemy, to be bound with the fetters of phlogiston, has been liberated, and adorned with a beautiful philosophic theory. The numerous discoveries of Priestley, Black, Lavoisier, and other European philosophers in this branch of science, afford splendid proofs of the increasing energies of the human mind.’16

The traditional notion of the ‘four elements’ as the fundamental and unchanging building blocks of the material world, which went back to the Greeks and Aristotle, was being overturned. Earth, Air, Fire and Water were not what they seemed. To start with, it had been suspected since 1780 that the most basic of all elements-common water-was actually a subtle composition. It was finally ‘decomposed’, and shown to be an elastic compound of hydrogen and oxygen (H2O), in a classic public experiment by Lavoisier in his laboratory at the Paris Arsenal on 28 February 1785.17 This was later repeated, in an electrical experiment by William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle reported in Nicholson’s Journal in 1800. It would not be lost on Davy that this simple but spectacular result was achieved through the use of the newly invented voltaic battery.

Fire, long supposed by Joseph Priestley and others to depend on a single mysterious and volatile substance known as ‘phlogiston’, had again been analysed quite differently by Lavoisier. He proposed that fire was the rapid combination of carbon with oxygen, a process known as combustion, by which things actually grew heavier than before, not lighter. Despite all appearances, escaping ‘phlogiston’ (still championed by Priestley) did not exist. Nonetheless, Lavoisier still thought that heat itself was a substance, which he now proposed to call ‘caloric’.

As for supposedly common air, the new science of pneumatics was to show analogous things. In reality air was an elastic mixture of oxygen and nitrogen (’azote’, in Lavoisier’s nomenclature), with traces of several other gases. In animal respiration it was utterly changed: oxygen was extracted by the lungs and passed into the bloodstream, while carbon dioxide was exhaled. Both Priestley and Lavoisier agreed on that. Exactly the reverse happened with plants: vegetation ‘restored air corrupted by combustion or respiration’. Plants absorbed carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, and returned oxygen to the economy of nature. This was demonstrated not by Lavoisier, but by Priestley, in another classic series of experiments, using air pumps and vacuum flasks, published in his Experiments on Different Kinds of Air (1774-77).18

These findings had inspired both the painter Joseph Wright of Derby and the young poet Anna Barbauld, who often visited Priestley’s laboratory in Bowood House, Wiltshire. Yet the global significance of this crucial equilibrium between plant and animal life was not yet apparent.

Finally, with the ‘element’ of earth, it was suspected in a similar way that alkaline substances found in the common earth, such as potash and soda, hid compound secrets, if a way could be found to unlock them.

The disappearance of the traditional world of the ‘four elements’ was revolutionary. It was as radical in the world of chemistry as Copernicus’s proof that the earth was not the centre of the solar system; or (some said) as Robespierre’s claim that the people, not the king, embodied sovereignty. Moreover, it was counter-intuitive: it went against common sense and common appearances. Surely water and air were primary, simple elements? Not at all: chemical experiment and scientific instruments could prove that they were not what they seemed to human senses-just as Newton, with his optical experiments with the prism, had shown that white sunlight was not what it seemed to the human eye, but a composite rainbow or spectrum of coloured light. Goethe had mused on the counter-intuitive nature of science: ‘When we try to recognise the idea inherent in a phenomenon we are confused by the fact that it frequently-even normally-contradicts our senses. The Copernican system is based on an idea which was hard to grasp; even now it contradicts our senses every day [that the sun rises]…The metamorphosis of plants contradicts our senses in this way.’19

It was characteristic of young Davy that he saw chemistry primarily as an expression of growing mental power, of creative hope. Yet he also relished the precise technical challenge it now presented. The first task lay in the decomposing or analysing of chemical substances into their true compounds, and precisely weighing, measuring and recording the process. Some twelve primary ‘elements’ were now established-beginning with hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen-and many more were expected. These would later form the basis of the Periodic Table, first suggested by John Dalton as a ‘Table of 20 Elements’ in 1808 (and organised by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev in 1869, using the card game of patience as a model).

Then, much more needed to be discovered about the three processes of transformation as defined by Priestley and Lavoisier: combustion, respiration, oxidation. Finally, chemistry needed to be applied to the human condition itself: the workings of the human body and mind, medicine, the cure of diseases, and what Davy called ‘the laws of organic existence’. Together, these would provide the key to life on earth itself. The whole field was wide open to a new generation, and the time for a truly great chemist to emerge was ripe. No one was more aware of this than Joseph Banks at the Royal Society.

Years later, in his Geological Lectures of 1811, Davy would nonetheless praise the contribution of early alchemists like Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, and particularly the first woman chemist, the legendary Hypatia of Alexandria, who worked in the fourth century, ‘a single bright star in a night of clouds and obscurity’, as he called her with a characteristic flourish. He would return to this theme, one that also fascinated Mary Shelley, in his last book, Consolations in Travel, or The Last Days of a Philosopher (published posthumously in 1830).20

Antoine Lavoisier had been the leading chemist in Europe. Elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1768 at the early age of twenty-five, he had established at the Arsenal in Paris the finest chemical laboratory of its time. Earning vast sums from his official post at the royal tax-collecting agency, the Fermiers-Général, Lavoisier poured his wealth into scientific research. His laboratory was equipped with the most sophisticated and expensive instruments available, such as the precision pair of scales made by Nicholas Fortin and said to be worth 600 livres. He also had a beautiful and highly intelligent wife, Marie-Anne Paulze, whom he trained up as a full-time scientific colleague.

Only thirteen when she married Lavoisier, Marie-Anne learned English and translated all the scientific papers by Priestley and Cavendish as soon as they appeared. She also acted as Lavoisier’s laboratory assistant, wrote up his scientific journals, and drew all the illustrations for his Traité. Lavoisier’s execution by order of the Revolutionary Convention in 1794 (he was accused of embezzling tax funds) was a disaster for French science. It also nearly overtook Marie-Anne: her beloved father was guillotined on the same day as Lavoisier, the next man to climb the scaffold (in the present Place de la Concorde) after his gifted son-in-law.21

Lavoisier had written an influential seven-page Preface to his Traité Élémentaire, defining his scientific method. This declaration seized young Davy’s imagination. Writing with great simplicity and clarity, Lavoisier championed the idea of precise experiment, close observation and accurate measurement. Above all, the man of science was humble and observant before nature. ‘When we begin the study of any science, we are in the situation, respecting that science, similar to that of children…We ought to form no idea but what is a necessary consequence, and immediate effect, of an experiment or observation…We should proceed from the known facts to the unknown.22

Lavoisier was not of course the first to champion scientific observation and precision. He criticised Descartes’ speculative theories, and quoted the philosopher Condillac-‘instead of applying observation to the things we wished to know, we have chosen to imagine them’-who in turn quoted Bacon and the early members of the Royal Society in London: Newton, Halley, Hooke. Lavoisier was a great anglophile. He praised Bacon’s philosophy of discovery, and set out the aims and ideals of experimental science as a great Romantic adventure of the mind. Davy never lost this vision, and it remained with him until the very last of his writings, set down in an essay to be called ‘The Chemical Philosopher’.23

Now for the first time there are accounts of Davy’s own experiments, as recalled by his brother John: ‘His apparatus consisted chiefly of phials, wine-glasses, teacups, tobacco pipes, and earthen crucibles; and his materials were chiefly the mineral acids and alkalis in common use in medicine. He began his experimental trials in his bedroom in Mr Tonkin’s house.’24 On the cover of one notebook Davy carefully drew in ink an olive wreath encircling the flame of a lamp: the bays of poetry surrounding the light of science. Characteristically he headed another notebook ‘Newton and Davy’.

For a dizzy moment he believed he had disproved one of Lavoisier’s basic claims, the existence of heat as a separate element called ‘caloric’. By rubbing together two large lumps of ice in a vacuum, Davy produced heat by simple friction (motion), which steadily melted the ice, though no ‘caloric’ element had been separately introduced, and nothing had been allowed to escape. He thereby believed he had demonstrated that ‘caloric’ could not be a chemical entity in itself, and that the most famous French chemist must have been wrong. In fact the heating effect of friction had already been demonstrated by Count Rumford in Munich (by boring metal cannons), and Davy had partly misunderstood Lavoisier’s terminology. Nevertheless, hugely excited, he began to compose a series of scientific papers, part experimental and part speculative, which he entitled ‘Essays on Heat and Light’.

In summer 1797 a new lodger came to stay with Grace Davy, arranged through the ever-solicitous Tonkin. Gregory Watt was the prodigal son of the great Scottish engineer James Watt. At twenty-five he was the youngest member of the Lunar Society, brilliantly clever but physically frail-probably consumptive-and emotionally unstable.25 He had graduated in geological sciences from Glasgow University, and had been sent to Cornwall to convalesce from what was termed a ‘nervous illness’.

After initial suspicions, Davy formed a close friendship with Watt, and took him on madcap field expeditions to explore the local slate and tin mines, plunging fearlessly into the nearby Wherry mine, which ran out deep under the sea. They gathered a huge range of mineral specimens, and went drinking in the evenings. Watt-fully six years older-teased Davy as ‘my dear Alchemist’, and announced that he would be Davy’s ‘mystagogue in his initiation into the orgies of the mirth-inspiring Bacchus’, by which one may understand that they drank a little French wine together in honour of Lavoisier-and possibly of Mlle Nancy.26 Years later, in his Geology Lectures, Davy would fondly recall these expeditions. Gregory passed on Davy’s name to his father, who in turn wrote about the young prodigy to his friend Dr Thomas Beddoes of Bristol.

Thomas Beddoes was regarded indulgently as a sort of secular saint by the Watt family: a holy fool of science. A gifted physician and lecturer, he had been forced to resign from his Fellowship at Oxford for his staunchly (and tactlessly) held republican and atheist views. He was a friend of Erasmus Darwin, and was much liked by the whole group of Lunar Men based around Birmingham, but especially by the Watts. At Oxford one of his best students had been the wealthy young Cornishman Davies Giddy, who was already lending Davy books from his extensive scientific library.

Beddoes, who lived in Rodney Place, Clifton, had a wide knowledge of European science, and had probably the most up-to-date scientific library in the west of England. He praised Lavoisier for his ‘study of impalpable substances…bringing within the sphere of the senses…fire, electricity, and magnetism’.27 In 1798, although it was wartime, he planned to open a new kind of democratic clinic, the Bristol Pneumatic Medical Institute, at 6-7 Dowry Square, Hotwells, on a hillside above the river Avon. Beddoes was now thirty-eight years old, and he felt it was the moment to try out his big idea: a radical centre for free public medicine, and research into inhalable gases, drugs and diets.

The Pneumatic Institute had been on his mind since 1794. Using the Bristol publisher Joseph Cottle, Beddoes had issued a number of idealistic pamphlets and questionnaires, to drum up financial and medical support. He wrote: ‘The Institution will be conducted with the utmost publicity so that all mankind may reap the benefit of it. The expense is estimated at 3 or 4 thousand pounds.’ Reassuringly for subscribers, his bankers would be Coutts & Co. of London.28

Beddoes had already tried treating various diseases (notably consumption, palsy and strokes) with drug regimes, using opium and digitalis, and experimental diets. His new idea was based on the recently discovered chemistry of respiration. His concept was that inhaled gases, ‘factitious airs’, by entering the bloodstream via the lungs, could alter and improve the whole constitution, and thereby cure major diseases. On 31 October 1794 he wrote to Davies Giddy: ‘Incontestable proof has been given that the application of airs or gases to the cure of diseases is both practicable and promising. There is for instance the best reason to hope that Cancer, the most dreadful of human maladies may by some of these substances be disarmed of its terror and its danger too.’29

He planned to house up to a dozen in-patients, and to treat up to 300 out-patients a week, most of them without charge.30 But financing philanthropy was always difficult. Eventually Beddoes thought that sufficient income could be generated by the sale of portable gas-inhaling equipment to local aristocrats, who he assumed were always more or less ill, and in need of gas treatment. But he needed initial capital: he asked Giddy for a gift of £350, got financing from James Watt, applied publicly to Joseph Banks at the Royal Society, and privately to the Duchess of Devonshire. Knowing perhaps that the duchess was not averse to a flutter, Beddoes put his proposal in terms of a wager, promising he could ‘cure gout for 500 guineas with a new specific’, but was happily prepared ‘to forfeit 5,000 guineas’ if he failed. Five thousand guineas was also the sum he had hoped for from the Royal Society.31 In the event it was another liberal aristocrat, William Henry Lambton, who supplied most of the funds, in return for having Beddoes tutor his sons.

Beddoes’s republican sentiments were always closely tied up with his view of public medicine. The following spring, while informing Giddy that he was treating a young woman for stomach ulcers, he observed that ‘the quondam Patriot William Pitt was almost done for’, and ironically enclosed a brown silk hat-ribbon printed in gold letters with the patriotic slogan: ‘Licensed to Wear Hair Powder. Pitt for Ever!’32 

It was a philanthropic project, typical of an age that also produced in Bristol at exactly this time Coleridge and Southey’s Pantisocratic scheme to start a self-governing commune on the banks of the Susquehanna in America.33 Beddoes was now looking for a young, enthusiastic assistant to promote this quixotic scheme. But he also wanted to appear realistic. He wrote carefully to Davies Giddy in July 1798: ‘I can open for [Davy] a more fruitful field for investigation than anybody else. Is it not also the most direct road to fortune?…He must devote his time [here] for two or three years…It will be considered as part of his medical education…He does not undertake to discover cures for this or that disease; he may acquire just applause by bringing out clear, though negative results…I would gladly place [these] at the head of my first volume.’

In effect Beddoes was offering Davy the chance of his first scientific publication, as well as a salaried research post.34

Davy now began his own lively correspondence with Beddoes in Bristol, describing his ‘new theories’ of combustion and respiration. He announced that he had a whole series of other papers on gases, electricity, heat and-most intriguingly-the universal energy transmitted by starlight. Beddoes read these eagerly, and, encouraged by James Watt, invited Davy-not yet twenty-to join the Institute as an assistant.

It is significant that Davy (and his mentor Tonkin) clearly saw this as a step forward to a career in medicine, not in chemistry or the physical sciences. Such a career-that of the professional research scientist-did not yet exist. (Neither of course did the term ‘scientist’ itself, as will emerge.) Davy would continue to think of a career in medicine, even of taking a medical degree at Oxford, until he was thirty. But what he was pioneering was the role of the public man of science in British society, and this was to be one of his greatest and most fruitful inventions.35

On 1 October 1798, Davy was formally released from his indentures in Penzance, and appointed Superintendent of the Pneumatic Medical Institution in Bristol. It was a momentous move, both in terms of geography and career. His old supporter Tonkin approved, but his mother was acutely anxious and wept at his parting, while his little brother John was inconsolable. Davy set out on the long journey eastwards, round Dartmoor and through Exeter, riding on the top of the coach for economy. All along the route he passed through villages hung with flags and bunting. On enquiring, he was told that the whole nation was celebrating the news of Nelson’s victory over the French at the battle of the Nile. But it was almost as if they were cheering him-Humphry Davy from Penzance, a son of genius.

At Bristol Hotwells he found Dr Beddoes to be ‘uncommonly short and fat’, a kindly but distracted host, and ‘extremely silent’ unless holding forth on some scientific topic or theory. Beddoes suffered from asthma, hated all physical exercise, but was passionately committed to his idea of public medicine, especially to benefit the poor. Rather surprisingly, he had married into the Edgeworth family, a clan of gifted Dublin doctors and intellectuals. His Irish father-in-law once described Beddoes as ‘a little fat Democrat of considerable abilities, a great name in the Scientific world as Naturalist and Chemist-good humoured, good natured, a man of honour & virtue [though] his manners are not polite’.36

Davy was prepared for eccentricity in a scientific genius. The real surprise was Beddoes’s young wife, twenty-four-year-old Anna, the younger half-sister of the novelist Maria Edgeworth. She was the precise opposite of the doctor (a good proof of ‘polarities’, Davy later thought): thin, energetic, talkative-and dazzlingly pretty-and not at all a bluestocking. A miniature of 1787 shows her with long blonde hair cut in a fringe, wide provoking eyes, and a tender voluptuous mouth. Anna was vivacious and alarmingly direct, with a love of the countryside inherited from her Irish roots. Davy reported back innocently to his mother in Penzance that Mrs Beddoes was ‘the reverse of the Doctor, extremely cheerful, gay, witty; she is one of the most pleasing women I ever met with…we are already very great friends’.37 Soon they were going for long walks together along the banks of the Avon, and Davy was half in love with her. Several years later he would recall these walks in one of his best poems, ‘Glenarm by Moonlight’, describing the ‘hours of confidence’ they shared.

That winter Beddoes published Davy’s earliest speculative essays on the chemistry of heat and starlight, which followed Lavoisier’s ideas on ‘oxygen’ but also challenged his concept of what Davy called briskly ‘the imaginary fluid caloric’. They appeared in Beddoes’s annual anthology, published by Joseph Cottle, Contributions to Physical and Medical Knowledge, principally in the West of England, which was intended to give publicity to the Institute and encourage donations. Cottle had also, as it happened, just brought out that autumn an anonymous little book of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads.

Davy’s two main essays were far the most ambitious contribution to the anthology, and announced his intellectual arrival in Bristol. He set out to champion chemistry, and speculate about its future, on the grandest metaphysical scale. In a Penzance notebook he had exclaimed: ‘What we mean by Nature is a series of visible images: but these are constituted by light. Hence the worshipper of Nature is a worshipper of light.’38 In his Essay 1, ‘On Heat, Light and the Combinations of Light’, he developed this into an entire cosmological vision, in which the whole universe was powered by starlight as well as Newtonian gravity, and would eventually be understood as a single unified idea. ‘We may consider the sun and the fixed stars (the suns of other worlds) as immense reservoirs of light, destined by the great Organizer to diffuse over the Universe organization and animation. And thus will the law of Gravitation, as well as the Chemical laws, be considered as one great end-PERCEPTION. Reasoning thus it will not appear improbable that one law alone may govern and act upon matter,-an Energy of Mutation impressed by the will of the Deity-a law which may be called the law of Animation.’

He added confidently that ‘the further we investigate the phenomenon of Nature, the more we discover simplicity and unity of design’.39

Even more radical was his suggestion that all human consciousness depended directly on physiological processes and ‘corpuscular’ changes. ‘Perception, ideas, pleasures and pains, are the effect of these changes…The laws of mind then, probably, are not different from the laws of corpuscular motion.’40 As a result the chemistry of the human body would provide a key to human well-being in the broadest sense. ‘We cannot entertain a doubt that every change in our sensations and ideas must be accompanied by some corresponding change in the organic matter of the body. These changes experimental investigation may enable us to determine. By discovering them we should be informed of the laws of our existence…Thus would chemistry, in its connection with the laws of Life, become the most sublime and important of all sciences.’41

Davy was making an almost metaphysical claim that chemistry might prove to be the path to ultimate knowledge. In an unpublished essay from this time, ‘An Essay to prove that Thinking Powers Depend on the Organization of the Body’, he went much further towards a materialist position. He played with the idea that all mental powers were produced by ‘the peculiar action of fluids upon solids’, that is, that there was a defining neurochemistry of the human brain. The ‘soul’ itself might ultimately be, or depend upon, a material entity. He argued that it was scientifically incorrect to believe that ‘God is unable to make matter think’. All mental problems-including pain and unhappiness-might be cured by the chemistry of drugs and gases.42

In Essay 2, ‘On the Generation of Phosoxygen’, Davy developed Lavoisier’s theory that all plants, when acted upon by sunlight, decomposed ‘carbonic acid gas’ (carbon dioxide) and released oxygen into the atmosphere. He also claimed to show experimentally that aquatic plants, when exposed to sunlight, oxygenated the surrounding water. Since all animal life did the reverse-absorbing oxygen in respiration and releasing carbonic gas-there was an essential equilibrium or harmony within nature. Davy had in effect described what is now known as the ‘carbon cycle’.43


Davy began his regular work at the Institute, seeing patients and administering gas and drugs according to Dr Beddoes’s instructions. These treatments were based on the ‘Brunonian system’, the theoretical work of Scottish physician John Brown (1735-88), hotly debated in the Edinburgh medical schools, which divided all medicines into stimulants and depressants. In fact this had very little basis in trials or experiment, as Davy gradually came to realise (and as Banks at the Royal Society had long suspected). Beddoes also introduced him to his Bristol publisher Joseph Cottle, and sent him to visit the Institute’s most influential supporters: the powerful Wedgwood family at Cote House, and James Watt and the Lunar Society in Birmingham. Davy made an excellent impression on everyone he met, and his circle of acquaintances rapidly expanded.

Initially Davy boarded with the Beddoes family in their large house at 3 Rodney Place, Clifton. Later he moved down the hill to live directly above the Institute and its laboratories and garden, in a corner of Dowry Square, Hotwells. As its name implied, the Hotwells district had a long tradition of thermal baths and healing spa establishments. But the small, reclusive Georgian square, tucked away into the hillside below Clifton village and wood, seemed an odd location for an experimental medical practice, with its daily stream of poverty-stricken patients, and its pungent aroma of chemicals and gases.

Hitherto the square had been an elegant cul de sac, with only its southern end opening onto the main Hotwells coaching road into Bristol city and docks. Until the arrival of Dr Beddoes’s Institute, it had evidently been a haven of tranquillity and respectability. The fine new brick and sandstone houses, with their tall sash windows and pillared porticoes, quietly enclosed a private garden on three sides. The Institute occupied two adjacent buildings, Nos 6 and 7, on an L-shaped site in what had previously been the north-west corner of the square, the quietest and furthest from the road. Beddoes chose the elegant No. 7 to house the main reception rooms and infirmary, while No. 6, more of a rabbit warren, contained the laboratories and staff quarters, and opened directly out onto a steep garden at the back. A separate outbuilding in that garden was used for the manufacture of gases and the storage of chemical compounds. No. 6 also had a wide tradesmen’s entrance, where medical supplies could be delivered in bulk by cart, and bodies (usually of small animals) could be removed.44 

As part of his policy of progressive public medicine, Beddoes advertised free pneumatic treatments for people suffering from consumption, asthma, palsy and scrofula. Untreatable or anti-social diseases, such as venereal infections, were also included. For more wealthy patients, the Institute offered inhaling kits that could be purchased and used in the home. This was one aspect of the Institute that Banks had objected to, as he felt it was open to quackery.45

For the first few months Davy, though delighted by his quarters, found himself acting largely as a medical superintendent. There were a number of assistants under his command, including two ancient bottle-washers, Dwyer and Clayfield, and young Dr Kinglake, whom he quickly dominated. But gradually the working rooms were fitted out, and for the first time in his life Davy was in charge of a well-equipped chemical laboratory.

By the spring of 1799 Beddoes agreed to Davy setting up a monitored series of gas-inhaling experiments, to see if any real scientific data could be gathered on the healing power of gases. In fact he intended to use the new empirical chemistry of Priestley and Lavoisier to test, and if necessary challenge, the Brunonian system of medicine by controlled experiment. He wrote to James Watt, an outstanding engineer, for designs of gasinhaling equipment, including a silken face-mask with a wooden mouthpiece. The masks and gas bags were based on balloon technology.46

In April 1799 Davy began his analysis of common air, and the workings of human respiration within the lung. He spread his initial experiments over various compounds of ‘factitious airs’, including hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, and several combinations of nitrous gas. Before trying anything out on his patients, he tested everything on himself, often at grave risk. Fainting fits, nausea and stunning migraines frequently overcame him. But he was undaunted.

One early unguarded experiment with carbon monoxide (a lethal gas, still much favoured by garage suicides) almost killed him.47 At two in the afternoon he began to inhale four quarts of ‘pure hydrocarbonate’ in the presence of his assistant Patrick Dwyer and a new laboratory recruit, James Tobin. On inhaling the third quart he collapsed. ‘I seemed sinking into annihilation, and had just power enough to drop the mouthpiece from my unclosed lips…I faintly articulated, “I do not think I shall die.”’ Davy still had the presence of mind to take his own pulse-‘threadlike and beating with excessive quickness’-then staggered out of the laboratory into the garden of No. 6 Dowry Square.

Here he collapsed on the lawn, trembling and seized with agonising chest pains. He was semi-conscious for some minutes, and was given oxygen by the terrified Dwyer. After half an hour he thought he was recovered, but he became giddy again and was helped to a bed. He lay there for the rest of the day, suffering from ‘nausea, loss of memory, and deficient sensation’. He vomited, and was then overcome by ‘excruciating pain’ between the eyes. Finally by ten o’clock at night his symptoms began to ease, and he fell into an exhausted sleep.

Davy had nearly recovered his strength by the next evening, that is some thirty hours later. He concluded calmly that if he had taken ‘four or five [quart] inspirations instead of three’, he would have ‘destroyed life immediately without producing any painful sensations’. A week later he was trying to inhale ‘carbonic acid’ (perhaps vaporised phenol), which so burnt his epiglottis that he choked.48

It is remarkable that these effects did not frighten or deter him, and these early experiments give a first glimpse of the reckless courage and impetuosity that always drove Davy in the laboratory. Nonetheless, it is also notable that he had previously prepared a bladder of oxygen in case of emergency, and Dwyer was instructed to apply it. The publisher Joseph Cottle, who was convinced of Davy’s genius and hoped eventually to print the results of his experiments (in the unlikely event that he survived them), recalled melodramatically: ‘No personal danger restrained him from determining facts, as the data for his reasoning…He seemed to act as if in case of sacrificing one life, he had two or three others in reserve, on which he could fall back in case of necessity…Occasionally I half despaired of seeing him alive the next morning.’49

Finally Davy decided that the properties of nitrous oxide (N2O, or laughing gas) made it the safest and the most promising for trials. He set himself his first experimental research programme, to test different concentrations of the gas: first on himself, then on animals, and finally on other human volunteers. Initially he was especially interested to analyse the exhaled air of the lungs, to discover what quantities of the gas were absorbed into the human bloodstream. He devised ingenious equipment to measure and control both inhalations and exhalations: various silk bags and bladders, glass vacuum flasks, a mercurial ‘air-holder and breathing machine’ of cast iron, made by his assistant Clayfield, wooden and metal mouthpieces, corked tubes which could be placed in the nostrils, face-masks and hand pumps, and finally (after nine months) a complete portable gas chamber with entrance and exit valves.50

At first Davy was largely concerned with the process of respiration, and possible therapeutic benefits. Later, with his human subjects, he became more interested in the physiological reactions of the whole body; and effects of pleasure and pain. Finally he became fascinated by purely psychological responses. He wrote proudly to his mother in Penzance: ‘We are going on gloriously. Our palsied patients are getting better; and, to be a little conceited, I am making discoveries every day.’51 He also boasted that he had been invited to contribute poetry to the leading Bristol literary magazine the Annual Anthology. It was published by Cottle, and edited by the young poet and one-time Pantisocrat Robert Southey, recently returned from Spain.


Nitrous oxide was not without risks. It was considered a lethal gas by both Priestley and the American chemist Dr Samuel Mitchill.52 But Davy went ahead anyway. He heated crystals of ammonium nitrate, collected the gas released in a green oiled-silk bag, passed it through water vapour to remove impurities, then inhaled it through a mouthpiece while his assistant Dr Kinglake monitored his pulse rate.53 The immediate obvious danger was that the ammonium nitrate would explode at a temperature above 400 degrees; the other was that the first inhalations would kill him or permanently damage the linings of his lungs.

But Davy’s first experiment went superbly. After inhaling four quarts of gas, he experienced ‘highly pleasurable thrilling, particularly in the chest and extremities. The objects around me became dazzling, and my hearing more acute.’ The next day the entire experience appeared dreamlike, he could not recall his sensations, and only by rereading his laboratory notes was he convinced that the experiment had taken place at all.54

Davy frankly admitted the extraordinary first effects of nitrous oxide. He experienced strange ‘thrillings’, increased bodily heat in his extremities, giddiness, raised pulse rate and (carefully observed in a mirror) a facial flush or suffusion of blood so ‘my cheeks became purple’. He noted: ‘Sometimes I manifested my pleasure by stamping or laughing only; at other times, by dancing round the room and vociferating.55 He sent his first account to his Cornish supporter Davies Giddy in a letter of 10 April 1799. ‘This gas raised my pulse upwards of twenty strokes, made me dance about the laboratory as a madman, and has kept my spirits in a glow ever since.’56 Shortly afterwards he sent three rather more sober reports to the leading scientific magazine of the day, Nicholson’s Journal.

These earliest experiments he also recorded in verse, partly to see how far his linguistic skills were affected, and also to explore whether the experience could be imaginatively described. In this case the poetry was itself a form of scientific data. The result was very bad verse, but surprisingly precise physiological information. He headed it ‘On Breathing Nitrous Oxide’.

Not in the ideal dreams of wild desire

Have I beheld a rapture-waking form;

My bosom burns with no unhallowed fire:

Yet is my cheek with rosy blushes warm

Yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre filled

Yet is my mouth replete with murmuring sound

Yet are my limbs with inward transport thrilled

And clad with newborn mightiness around.57

Davy suggests in the opening three lines that his physiological state could be compared to that of spontaneous sexual arousal produced by an erotic dream (’dreams of wild desire…a rapture-waking form’). Yet in fact this is not the cause (although Anna Beddoes may have provoked the comparison). He then goes on in the next four lines carefully to define his physical sensations, the facial blushing and so on, and ends with the overwhelming delusion of physical power (’newborn mightiness’). Davy’s verse is normally very clear, so the uncharacteristic confusion of grammar and syntax here, opening with the emphatic but barely coherent ‘Not’, and tailing off into the repeated ‘Yet’, is itself interesting empirical evidence of his mental state.

His discovery of the gas’s potential filled him with excitement and ambition. One of his earliest laboratory notes records: ‘This evening April 27th [1799] I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever-a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.’58

Nitrous oxide inhalations now became a regular part of his laboratory routine. He recorded in his notes: ‘Between April and June I constantly breathed the gas sometimes three or four times a day for a week, at other times, four or five times a week only. The general effect of it I can describe with great difficulty, nor can I well discriminate between its agency and that of other physical and moral causes. I slept less than usual, I thought more in bed, I had a constant desire of action.’ He did not define what this ‘action’ might be, but he thought he had ‘increased sensibility of touch’, and the tips of his fingers were ‘pained’ by rough things, even by paper.59 He felt he was ‘more irritable than usual’, though that might have had other ‘moral’ causes. In retrospect it appears that these ‘moral causes’ might have been connected with Anna Beddoes.60

Normally the gas was taken in laboratory conditions, with Dr Kinglake as his assistant, while rigorous notes were taken. But sometimes Davy returned in the evenings, apparently alone. These sessions seem to have been particularly intense. ‘I have often felt very great pleasure when breathing it alone, in darkness and silence, occupied only by ideal existence.’61 On the evening of 5 May 1799 Davy prepared to subject himself to a special session, to see what the psychological effects might be of a deliberately excessive dose. He prepared for this by going for a long, solitary, moonlit walk along the banks of the Avon, clearing his mind and tuning his feelings to the beauties of nature. ‘After eating a supper, drinking two glasses of brandy and water and sitting for some time on the top of the wall reading Condorcet’s Life of Voltaire’, he returned to Dowry Square, and immediately inhaled six quarts of pure nitrous oxide. The experiment was monitored by Kinglake. The results were striking, but oddly disappointing, because they produced no further mental or spiritual revelations: ‘The pleasurable sensation was at first local, and perceived in the lips and the cheeks. It gradually, however, diffused itself over the whole body, and in the middle of the experiment was for a moment so intense and pure as to absorb existence. At this moment, and not before, I lost consciousness; it was, however, quickly restored, and I endeavoured to make a bystander acquainted with the pleasures I experienced by laughing and stamping. I had no vivid ideas.’62

There was no extension of his earlier visionary glimpses to record in his notes. Though he had ‘vivid and agreeable dreams’ later that night, nothing further emerged from his unconscious mind. The large dose of nitrous oxide brought him no spiritual revelation, no deeper contact with ‘the universe’. Perhaps it was Davy’s disappointment with this that made him overlook at first the significant physiological fact that the gas could be used in an entirely different way: to banish consciousness altogether, and then safely and quickly ‘restore’ it. A gas that could blot out feelings-ana-thesia-and then bring them back.

Yet in retrospect Davy clearly grasped what had occurred, as he returned to this experience some twenty years later in his book Salmonia. While discussing the nature of pain as felt by animals and even fish, and the sense of impending death, he recalled the process of ‘losing consciousness’ by inhaling both nitrous oxide and (the lethal) carbon monoxide gas.63

He continued experimenting on himself until July, usually three or four times daily, and sometimes in the evening after drinking wine or brandy. Yet he remained meticulous in all his scientific records. For example, he repeatedly measured his lung capacity, finally refining his figures down to these: 254 cubic inches when he forcefully inhaled; 135 cubic inches when he naturally inhaled; and, perhaps most interesting, forty cubic inches of residual air. He also analysed the lung content of natural air without nitrous oxide: 71.9 per cent nitrogen, 15.2 per cent oxygen, and 12.8 per cent carbon dioxide, which is startlingly close to a modern chemical analysis.64

In May 1799 he tentatively began nitrous oxide trials with the clinic’s regular patients. The results could be unpredictable. Some reported delicious sensations of bodily heat and stimulation. Others recorded alarming muscular spasms or mental confusion. Yet others were merely made dizzy or sleepy.

Davy now pioneered the ‘blind’ experimental method. He deliberately did not tell his subjects what concentration of nitrous oxide they were breathing, or whether they were in fact inhaling ordinary air (which they sometimes were). He carefully recorded pulse, muscular reactions, visual distortions, blushing and sexual stimulation, and any episodes of mental confusion or hysteria. He also asked his subjects to describe in detail their own subjective sensations.

His laboratory journals show that he was increasingly fascinated by the hallucinogenic properties of the gas, and its effects on human consciousness and perceptions. Slowly he became aware of its power to alter moods, stimulate the body’s energy and deaden pain. Then he hovered again around the revolutionary notion of anaesthesia, and one further decisive step: the idea that controlled doses of nitrous oxide might be used in a surgical context.65

Davy initially used voluntary patients who were already attending the clinic, or members of Beddoes’s immediate circle of family and friends. Most were male, but there were several young women, though they remain tactfully unnamed in his reports. Anna Beddoes certainly inhaled the gas under Davy’s supervision, perhaps for pleasure as much as in the interests of science. As Beddoes himself wryly observed: ‘Mrs. Beddoes had frequently seemed to be ascending like a balloon up the hill to Clifton.’ Robert Southey’s young wife Edith also inhaled, though Davy’s note records that she was ‘very little affected, only rendered giddy’.66

But one young woman, described only as ‘Miss J’, had such a violent reaction that Davy was evidently alarmed. ‘Miss J breathed this morning six quarts…in about a minute she suffered the bag to drop. She then began to sob most violently, then cried and laughed alternately. She used most vivid muscular actions and appeared to be perfectly delirious in about ten minutes.’ Davy dragged her over to the window, and attempted to calm her by getting her to take deep breaths of fresh air. ‘She relapsed again and continued in the hysterical fit for near two minutes. Her muscular motions were uncommonly violent.’67

Joseph Cottle recorded a rumour that another young woman was overcome by hysterical excitement, ran out of the laboratory, and rushed screaming down the street towards the Avon, where she was somewhat bizarrely reported to have ‘jumped over a large dog’ before she could be restrained and brought back. This case does not appear in Davy’s notes, but the idea that women could be made to lose their inhibitions, and might even be sexually aroused by nitrous oxide, persisted.

With his experimental subjects, Davy monitored pulse rates, and required them to undergo certain standard tests, such as gazing at a candle flame and listening to bells. He wanted to record physiological changes, such as distortions of vision and hearing. But gradually he became more and more interested in subjective responses. He asked his Institution patients to put into words exactly what they were feeling. This proved surprisingly difficult, and early responses ranged from ‘I don’t know how, but very queer’; to ‘I felt like the sound of a harp.’68

Davy now conceived a new and original line of investigation. He began to enlist perfectly healthy subjects, chosen from his highly articulate circle of Bristol friends, and asked them to describe their sensations as precisely as possible. They included the poet Robert Southey, several members of the Edgeworth family, Gregory Watt and his father James, Tom Wedgwood, the heir to the great Staffordshire pottery company, and a number of young writers and scholars like Peter Roget and John Rickman.

A few, like Cottle, refused to volunteer, either on moral or prudential grounds. But it is striking how many accepted. Eighty pages of these accounts were eventually published in Davy’s Researches. Many of their strange, gasped phrases included the idea of rebirth: ‘I seemed a new being’; ‘I seemed a sublime being newly created’; ‘I felt as if possessed of new organs.’69 Initial enthusiasm was naïve and unbounded. Gregory Watt spoke of ‘heavenly inhalations’. Robert Southey wrote to his brother: ‘O, Tom! Such a gas has Davy discovered, the gaseous oxide. Oh, Tom! I have had some; it made me laugh and tingle in every toe and finger-tip. Davy has actually invented a new pleasure, for which language has no name. Oh, Tom! I am going for more this evening! It makes one strong and happy! So gloriously happy!’70

Maria Edgeworth visited Clifton at this euphoric time, and gave a novelistic spin to her sister Anna’s glowing accounts of Davy’s experiments. The handsome young Cornishman ‘enthusiastically expects wonders will be performed by the use of certain gases, which inebriate in the most delightful manner, having the oblivious effects of Lethe, and at the same time giving the rapturous sensations of the Nectar of the Gods!’ Maria also noted with an amused eye that Anna seemed particularly full of ‘grace, genius, vivacity, and kindness’ that spring, implying that this had not always been the case before Mr Davy’s arrival.71

But some accounts were more prosaic. Southey and several others recorded the simple terror they felt on first putting the wooden mouthpiece between their lips, and attempting to breathe the gas. This was followed by sensations of relief, giddiness or weightlessness, falling over, and finally helpless laughter: ‘The laughter was involuntary but highly pleasurable, accompanied by a thrill all through me.’ It is noticeable that Southey’s accounts (given both to Beddoes and to Davy in the laboratory) are much more restrained than those in his private letters to his brother Tom. This marks an interesting problem in the gathering of supposedly objective, scientific evidence.

Dr Peter Mark Roget, then a young medical student from Edinburgh, and the future compiler of Roget’s Thesaurus (1852), found, ironically enough, great difficulty in choosing the words to describe his feelings aptly. ‘I felt myself totally incapable of speaking…My ideas succeeded one another with extreme rapidity, thoughts rushed like a torrent through my mind.’ He felt forced to try analogies, and towards the end managed an accurate description of fainting: ‘I suddenly lost sight of all the objects round me, they being apparently obscured by clouds, in which were many luminous points, similar to what is experienced on rising suddenly and stretching out the arms.’72

Mr Coates primly observed ‘a degree of hilarity altogether new to me’; while Miss Rylands was circumspectly ‘deprived of the power of speaking, but not of recollection’. Beddoes’s brother-in-law, the jolly Mr Lovell Edgeworth, ‘burst into a violent fit of laughter, and capered about the room without having the power of restraining myself’. He remarked wonderingly that he almost bit through the wooden mouthpiece.

What Davy began to see was that reactions reflected personal temperament, as much as simple physiological changes. So what the musician Mr Wansey reported was an experience like ‘some of the grand choruses of the Messiah’ which he had heard played by 700 instruments in Westminster Abbey five years previously. While Southey’s great friend, the down-to-earth radical tanner of Nether Stowey, Tom Poole, was reminded of climbing mountains in Glamorganshire.73


The friendship which now formed between Southey and Davy was one of the most important of his Bristol years. They spent many evenings together at Dowry Square in the spring of 1799, discussing politics, science, literature and medicine, as well as inhaling nitrous oxide. They sometimes walked out together to Tom Poole’s house in Nether Stowey, or to Southey’s lodgings in Wiltshire. ‘When I went to the Pneumatic Institute,’ Southey recalled, ‘he had to tell me of some new experiment or discovery and the views which it opened for him, and when he came to Westbury there was a fresh bit of Madoc for his hearing.’74 Southey was hugely impressed by Davy’s energy and idealism. He wrote to his friend William Wynn: ‘Humphry Davy possesses the most miraculous talents I ever met with or heard of, and will I think do more for medicine than any person who has ever gone before him.’75

The rival claims of poetry and science became a passionate topic between them. Davy tentatively showed Southey his poems, scattered through his laboratory notebooks, many still in draft, and Southey promised to select the best and publish them. On 4 May 1799 he wrote to Davy constructively criticising his poem ‘Mount’s Bay’ and urging him to continue writing.76 Poetry, he argued, would be good for Davy’s science. He also promised to introduce his extraordinary friend Coleridge, who was due (indeed overdueas usual) to return from Germany, full of Blumenbach’s scientific lectures at Göttingen University and wild tales of the witches of Walpurgisnacht in the Hartz mountains. Coleridge was proposing to translate Blumenbach’s Manual of Natural History, though he should also have been finishing his poem ‘Christabel’. Among other wonders Southey also described the strange Valley of the Rocks near Lynmouth, and asked Davy whether a scientific explanation (sea erosion) or a mythological one (giants’ abandoned castle) would be more satisfactory.

In this way Southey gently encouraged Davy not to abandon his vision as a poet, amidst all the excitement of the gas experiments. ‘I must not press the subject of poetry upon you, only do not lose the feeling and habit of seeing all things with a poet’s eye: at Bristol you have a good society, but not a man who knows anything of poetry. Dr Beddoes’s taste is very pessimism.’77

Southey wrote again in August, proposing that he and Davy collaborate on an epic poem set in Peru. (The only other writer with whom Southey had previously collaborated was Coleridge.) This would develop Davy’s poet’s eye, and be ‘a relaxation from more important studies’. The 1799 Annual Anthology, which included Davy’s five poems, was nearly ready for publication. ‘You still, I suppose, go on working with your gaseous oxide, which according to my notions of celestial enjoyment, must certainly constitute the atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens. I wish I was at the Pneumatic Institution, something to gratify my appetite for that delectable air, and something for the sake of seeing you.’78

Nevertheless, when Davy proudly sent a copy of the Annual Anthology to his mother in Penzance, he felt the need to reassure her. ‘Do not suppose I am turned poet. Philosophy, Chemistry and Medicine are my profession. I had often described Mount’s Bay to my friends here. They desired me to describe it poetically.’79

It was to be a memorable autumn. On 11 October Gregory Watt wrote to Davy: ‘get an air holder of gas prepared for I am determined to ascend the heavens’.80 A new round of nitrous oxide experiments had begun, and these brought Davy’s first meeting with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, still full of his trip to Germany and just celebrating his twenty-seventh birthday. It took place at Dowry Square on 22 October 1799. Coleridge was only in Bristol for a fortnight before hurrying off to join Wordsworth and Dorothy in the Lake District. Nevertheless he spent several evenings talking excitedly with Davy, and had repeated inhalation sessions at the Dowry Square laboratory. He must have compared the gas with his already extensive and overpowering experience of opium.81

In fact Coleridge’s accounts of his reactions to the gas seem oddly prosaic. His heart thumped ‘violently’, he involuntarily ‘beat the ground’ with his feet, and he watched some trees in the garden becoming ‘dimmer and dimmer’, as if seen through tears. Nitrous oxide seemed strangely reassuring to Coleridge, even homely: ‘an highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame, resembling what I remember once to have experienced after returning from a walk in the snow into a warm room’.82 He used only one descriptive phrase which is reminiscent of a line from his great opium poem of 1797, ‘Kubla Khan’: he spoke of ‘more unmingled pleasure than I had ever before experienced’.

Yet Coleridge was evidently intrigued by the whole phenomenon of nitrous oxide and its ‘psychosomatic’ (a word he coined) implications, and would return to it in a dazzling series of letters written to Davy the following year. Altogether Coleridge was much struck by the young chemist (’an admirable young man’), but he still hurried away to visit Wordsworth in the Lake District. It was only when Davy travelled up to London for the first time in his life, in late November 1799, that the friendship was truly formed.

Coleridge was now living with Charles and Mary Lamb in the Middle Temple, translating Schiller’s play Wallenstein (not Blumenbach after all) and writing articles for the Morning Post. He saw Davy frequently over a ten-day period, and took him to dine with the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. They were joined by Lamb, the poet Charlotte Smith and the portrait painter James Northcote. This was a memorable dinner, and Davy talked brilliantly about the future of science to his artistic listeners. Godwin, at the height of his philosophical fame, having just published his notorious Memoir of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, was hugely impressed with Davy, although he thought he would ‘degrade his vast Talents’ by limiting them to chemistry. Yet everyone was agreed: Davy was ‘extraordinary’.

Coleridge immediately began to fantasise about setting up a ‘little colony’ with Davy and Wordsworth (though they had not even met)-‘Precious stuff for Dreams’. After Davy returned to Bristol, Coleridge wrote a long letter in January 1800, opening with a characteristic suggestion: ‘I wish in your researches that you and Beddoes would give a compact compressed History of the Human Mind for the last century…’ As to Godwin’s criticism of chemistry, Coleridge described his robust defence to Davy. ‘Why, quoth I, “how Godwin! Can you thus talk of science, of which neither you nor I understand an iota” etc, and I defended Chemistry as knowingly at least as Godwin attacked it-affirmed that it united the opposite advantages of immaterialising the mind without destroying the definiteness of the Ideas-nay even while it gave clearness to them.’

Here Coleridge was defending the intellectual discipline of science as a force for clarity and good. He then added one of his most inspired perceptions. He thought that science, as a human activity, ‘being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was poetical’. Science, like poetry, was not merely ‘progressive’. It directed a particular kind of moral energy and imaginative longing into the future. It enshrined the implicit belief that mankind could achieve a better, happier world. This is what Davy believed too, and ‘Hope’ became one of his watchwords.83


Throughout the momentous year 1799 Davy continued to fill his notebooks with visionary essays and poems. But he did not forget Cornwall. In October, to Grace Davy’s delight, the prodigal son had returned home to Penzance for a month. He brought her fashionable jewellery from Bristol, and an impressively large case of chemical apparatus. Davy later described how an entire portable chemical laboratory, including air pump, electrical apparatus and ‘a small forge’, could be fitted into a single trunk. He visited Davies Giddy and other old friends, walked up to his father’s tomb at Ludgvan church, went fishing, shooting and geologising, and wrote some dreamy half-rhyming poems, distinctly inspired by Coleridge’s ‘conversation poems’ in the Lyrical Ballads.

Many days have passed

Beloved scene, since last I saw

The moonbeams gild thy whitely-foaming waves…

The dew of labour has oppressed my brow,

On which the rose of pleasure never glowed;

For I have tasted of that sacred stream

Of science, whose delicious water flows

From Nature’s bosom…84

In December, as promised, his five poems appeared in Southey’s Annual Anthology, including ‘The Sons of Genius’, ‘Saint Michael’s Mount’ and ‘The Tempest’.

It was in this same month that Davy first used a portable gas chamber especially designed by James Watt. This device allowed a much longer total exposure to nitrous oxide, and also psychologically isolated the subject from his laboratory surroundings. It was a narrow, dark, boxed chamber ‘like a sedan chair’, about five feet high, completely sealed with stretched canvas and pasted paper to make it airtight. Air was pumped out from a two-inch vent above the subject’s head, while gas was introduced by another ‘about the height of the knee’. The subject was supplied with ‘a feather fan’ to mix the gas around him. ‘On each side and in front should be a pane of glass about twelve by eighteen inches, that you may see the patient during his confinement.’ The hermetic seal on the chamber allowed gas to be introduced under slightly higher than normal atmospheric pressure.85

There is a vivid account of Davy’s first use of this faintly sinister machine, on 26 December 1799. Naturally he tried it himself first. He stripped to the waist, placed a large mercury thermometer under his armpit, took a stopwatch to time his pulse, and had himself sealed into the chamber by Kinglake. Over a precisely agreed time of seventy-five minutes, Kinglake pumped in (’threw in’) exactly eighty quarts of nitrous oxide. Davy’s pulse rose to 124, his temperature to 106, and his cheeks went bright purple. But, amazingly, he remained conscious. Kinglake then released him, and gave him as planned a final twenty quarts of pure gas to inhale through a mouthpiece. It had been agreed that Davy (if he could still speak) would then try to describe his sensations as accurately as he could to Kinglake.

This is the published version: ‘By degrees as the pleasurable sensations increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible Images rapidly passed through my mind and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorized; I imagined that I had made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi-delirious trance by Dr Kinglake, who took the gas-bag from my mouth, Indignation and pride were my first feelings…My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked round the room perfectly regardless of what was said to me…With the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr Kinglake,-“Nothing exists, but Thoughts!-the Universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!” ’86

The unpublished verbatim version from Davy’s 1799 laboratory notebook is rather more colourful: ‘I was now almost completely intoxicated…The sensations were superior to any I ever experienced. Inconceivably pleasurable…Theories passed rapidly thro the mind, believed I may say intensely, at the same time that every thing going on in the room was perceived. I seemed to be a sublime being, newly created and superior to other mortals, I was indignant at what they said of me and stalked majestically out of the laboratory to inform Dr Kinglake privately that nothing existed but thoughts.’87

Other extreme experiments included the combination of nitrous oxide with alcohol. On one December night in the laboratory, Davy drank an entire bottle of wine ‘as fast as possible that it might produce its full effects’. The gas did not prevent ‘complete intoxication’ in less than an hour, but it helped his hangover the next morning. The experiment was repeated, with the same results. He noted: ‘On December 23 I breathed after a terrible drunken fit a larger quantity of gas, 2 bags and two bags of oxygen, it made me sick.’ The next day, ‘no headache came on, and my appetite was almost canine’.88 He wondered if his experiments were getting out of hand.

With the completion of the intensive work on Researches, Davy gave himself up to further intellectual speculations. In his notebooks he scribbled extensive essays, often unfinished, on subjects such as the ‘Formation of the Intellect’ (starting in the womb, before birth); ‘The History of Passion’, ‘On Genius’ (’what is this generating faculty of man, which acts through the immensity of ages?’); and ‘On Dreaming’.89

Now besides the poetry, there were fictional fragments, erotic fantasies, and some unusual sections of self-analysis. Some clearly show Coleridge’s continuing influence, and touch again on the difference between the scientific and the poetic imagination: ‘Today, for the first time in my life, I have had a distinct sympathy with nature. I was lying on the top of a rock to leeward; the wind was high, and everything in motion…everything was alive, and myself part of the series of visible impressions; I should have felt pain in tearing a leaf from one of the trees…Deeply and intimately connected are all our ideas of motion and life, and this, probably, from very early association. How different is the idea of life in a physiologist and a poet!’90

In June 1800 Davy published his first individual work, Researches Chemical and Philosophical chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and its Respiration. It was issued in London by Joseph Johnson, the radical publisher of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Coleridge and Wordsworth. Davy thus joined an author list which was largely literary and philosophical in character, and with a strong radical reputation.91

‘Ten months of incessant labour were employed in making them,’ he wrote of the Researches, ‘and three months in detailing them.’ Crisply divided into four ‘Research’ sections, the historic monograph described the entire range of his gas experiments, presenting the previous history of gases (Research 1); his own chemical analysis and decompositions of nitrous oxide (Research 2); his examination of the whole phenomenon of respiration (Research 3); and finally eighty pages of detailed accounts of the individual inhalation sessions (Researches 4). It was these that caused the sensation among general readers.

Humans were not Davy’s only subjects. The section ‘Research 3’ contains multiple gas experiments (nitrous oxide, hydrogen and carbon monoxide) on live animals, including dogs, cats, birds and rabbits. He also immersed fish in de-oxygenated water; and butterflies, bees and house flies in mixtures of the gases. Many of these subjects died in convulsions, and were calmly dissected. None of his scientific reviewers remarked on the problematic nature of this research, but Davy became more and more uneasy at the pain he was causing, and Coleridge would later call his attention to pain as a phenomenon in itself.

Davy’s style is plain, discursive and never sensational. He presents himself throughout as the objective narrator of each experiment, the calm man of science who can observe an animal asphyxiating without emotion, and can still take his own pulse when he thinks he himself is dying. In this sense the book invents a scientific persona, the unflinching teller of true tales. The Researches were dedicated to Dr Thomas Beddoes, as ‘pledges of more important labours’. Yet Davy carefully avoided drawing any general conclusions, and in particular made no medical claims at all about the therapeutic value of gas treatments at the Pneumatic Institute.

In an important Preface Davy described how his new, empirical approach to scientific investigation had altered over the last eighteen months.92 As a result of the critical reception of his highly speculative early essay ‘On Light and Heat’, he had begun an extensive reappraisal of his own scientific methods at Bristol. In his notebooks of late 1799 there are humiliating confessions critical of his own premature ‘pursuit of speculations and theories’, and of the ‘dangers of false generalization’. He now believed, not entirely convincingly, that ‘the true philosopher’ avoided ‘theories’ altogether. He upbraided himself fiercely: ‘It is more laborious to accumulate facts than to reason concerning them; but one good experiment is of more value than the ingenuity of a brain like Newton’s.’93

In the published Preface, these self-criticisms are only slightly modulated. Self-criticism itself was now becoming an effective part of Davy’s scientific style: ‘I have endeavoured to guard against sources of error; but I cannot flatter myself that I have altogether avoided them. The physical sciences are almost wholly dependent on the minute observation and comparison of properties of things not immediately obvious to the senses…I have seldom entered into theoretical discussion, particularly concerning light, heat and other agents…Early experience has taught me the folly of hasty generalization. We are ignorant of the laws of corpuscular motion…Chemistry in its present state, is simply a partial history of phenomena, consisting of many series more or less extensive of accurately connected facts.’94

Here was, apparently, the sobered scientific empiricist who would appeal to Banks and the Committee of the Royal Institution.

It was vital to Davy how his first publication would be received. In July 1800, anxiously awaiting news, he took himself off on a long summer walking tour into Wales with the painter Thomas Underwood, a rich and bohemian young man who had scientific interests. Underwood also happened to be one of the proprietors of the newly formed Royal Institution in London, but they restricted their conversation to the benefits of sunlight, starlight and fishing.

First reactions to the book were very mixed. Preliminary accounts of the experiments had already been unguardedly described by Beddoes in a pamphlet, Observations made at the Medical Pneumatic Institution, published at the end of 1799. Though circulated in Bristol, this unwittingly prepared the way for scandal in London.95 The polemicist Richard Polwhele quickly published a nimble poem, ‘The Pneumatic Revellers’ (1800), a satirical attack on the nitrous oxide experiments which used suggestive dialogue and innuendo to imply that the Bristol laboratory witnessed scenes of intoxication, hysteria and even sexual debauchery.96 The experimenters and their subjects were mocked with glee:

And they cried, everyone, ‘twas a pleasure ecstatic

To drink deeper drafts of the mighty Pneumatic!

Davy and Beddoes were also attacked, as Banks had feared, in an anonymous pamphlet, The Sceptic (1800). They were described as a pair of ‘Bladder conjurors and newfangled Doctors pimping for Caloric’. In a word, they had used gas to seduce their female subjects when unconscious. By putting female subjects ‘in a state of gas’, they insidiously ‘gained admittance to their lovely persons’. In a fantasy sequence, the pamphlet describes how the dastardly Dr Caloric ‘warms their snowy bosoms; blows up the latent spark of soft desire; explores each hidden source of human bliss; and unsuspected riots in their Charms!’ One ‘fair patient’ was even rumoured to have been made pregnant under nitrous oxide.97

Such attacks were still continuing four years later, when Robert Harrington published his polemic essay entitled ‘The Death Warrant of the French Theory of Chemistry’ (1804). The new chemistry was dismissed as charlatanism, and linked to the craze for ballooning. ‘This is supposed to be the age of airial philosophy; I wish it were the age of common-sense for at present it has taken an airial flight; and unfortunately, candour and justice have flown away with it!’ Beddoes and Davy were described as ‘aerial flying chemists’ pursuing ‘ecstatic, lunatic and Laputatic sensations’.98 The Anti-Jacobin magazine made a more general link between radical politics, inhaling gas, flying balloons and mesmerism. But eventually these attacks were to prove far more damaging to Beddoes in Bristol than to Davy once he was established professionally in London.99

Davy was already growing restless with Beddoes’s regime of gas treatments. Secretly, he believed he had come to a dead end. He was becoming more and more interested in galvanism, and the experimental possibilities of the new electrical pile or ‘battery’ invented by Alessandro Volta of the University of Como. This had been described in a paper published by Banks in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions that summer of 1800. The voltaic battery could produce an electrical charge by purely chemical means, and hold it for many hours.

The accounts of Davy’s first electrical experiments appear in a notebook headed ‘Clifton 1800, from August to November’.100 He had read a paper about the crucial experiment by Nicholson and Carlisle, who used a voltaic pile to ‘decompose’ water, and wrote breathlessly to Davies Giddy in Penzance: ‘an immense field of investigation seems opened by this discovery: may it be pursued so as to acquaint us with the laws of life!’101 To Beddoes’s dismay, troughs of voltaic batteries, with their rows of square metal plates and pungent smell of oxidising acids, began to replace the glass gas tanks and silken bags in the Institute’s laboratory.

Davy wrote to Coleridge in November: ‘I have made some important galvanic discoveries which seem to lead to the door of the temple of life.’102 Extensive correspondence continued between them about the ‘hopeful’ and progressive nature of science, the theory of chemistry, and the physiology of pleasure and pain, throughout the rest of the year.103 Coleridge followed Davy’s publications eagerly, and wrote with delight when he saw the title of one of his new galvanic essays advertised in the Morning Post:‘Upon my soul, I believe there is not a letter in those words, round which a world of imagery does not circumvolve: your room, the garden, the cold bath, the Moonlit Rocks…and dreams of wonderful Things attached to your name!’104

Coleridge’s own notebooks began to show a new, scientific precision in the observation of plants, water and weather at this time. ‘River Greta near its fall into the Tees-Shootings of water threads down the slope of the huge green stone.-The white Eddy-rose that blossom’d up against the stream in the scollop, by fits and starts, obstinate in resurrection.-It is the Life that we live. Black round spots from 5 to 18 in the decaying leaf of the Sycamore.’105 He felt that the new poetry and the new science were so closely entwined that they must somehow merge, and invited Davy to move north and establish a chemistry laboratory in the Lake District. Coleridge announced: ‘I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark.’106

But could they really combine? Southey was one of the first of the Romantic poets to suggest that there might be a profound difference between the scientific and the artistic temperament. This was a subject he would pursue with Coleridge, who did not entirely agree. In February 1800 Southey was already writing to his friend William Taylor: ‘Davy is proceeding in his chemical career with the same giant strides as at its outset…Chemistry, I clearly see, will possess him wholly and too exclusively: he allows himself no time for acquiring other knowledge. In poetry he will do nothing more: he talks of it, and that is all; nor can I urge him to perform promises which are perhaps better broken than kept. In his own science he will be first, and the high places in poetry have long been occupied.’107

Despite Southey’s doubts about Davy’s literary interests, Davy did see through the press both the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, and Southey’s Thalaba, in 1800, and agreed to help edit a third volume of the Annual Anthology. He also privately continued writing poetry about Anna Beddoes, and his own memories and visions. Eighteen months later, in August 1801, Southey was confidently informing Coleridge: T wish it were not true, but it unfortunately is, that experimental philosophy always deadens the feelings; and these men who “botanize upon their mothers’ graves”, may retort and say, that cherished feelings deaden our usefulness;-and so we are all well in our way.’ Here Southey was quoting from a poem by Wordsworth, ‘The Tables Turned’. But Coleridge still had different ideas on the matter.108

Not all Davy’s Bristol friends agreed that a great poet had been lost. Gregory Watt was glad Davy had not gone on contributing to the Annual Anthology. He later mocked poetry as an ‘exquisitely insidious’ form of delusion, and described most poets as ‘sporters with the feelings of the world’, whose effusions deserved to be burnt by the public hangman. ‘You, my dear philosopher,’ he reassured Davy, ‘have wisely relinquished the stormy Parnassus, where transient sunshine only contrasts the cloudy sky, for the mild and unvarying temperature of the central grotto of science.’ Then, serious for a moment, he urged Davy to remain in his calm laboratory and be ‘guided by the light of your own creation’.109

But Davy had not relinquished Parnassus, though he chose never to publish his poems after 1800. For the rest of his life he filled his laboratory notebooks with drafts and fragments of poetry, which were afterwards faithfully collected by his brother John, and scattered posthumously throughout his Memoirs of Sir Humphry Davy. Most of these would be travel pieces (‘Fontainbleau’, ‘Mont Blanc’, ‘Athens’, ‘Canigou’), loose forms of descriptive verse-diary, which show great sensitivity to seasons and landscape-especially rivers and mountains. They are exactly what you would expect of a meditative fisherman who had read Coleridge and Wordsworth, and also Izaak Walton. Yet they are surprisingly conventional in language and feeling.

However, there are a number of striking confessional pieces, of much greater intensity, in which Davy tried to work through some of his strange metaphysical ideas about death, fame and hope. The style is plain, often rather awkward, but here the thought is often highly original. It is difficult to imagine what other writer of the period (except perhaps Caroline Herschel) would have imagined the dead Lord Byron touring the universe on a comet, saluted by extraterrestrial beings, and accelerating towards the speed of light.

Of some great comet he might well have been

The habitant, that thro’ the mighty space

Of kindling ether rolls; now visiting

Our glorious sun, by wondering myriads seen

Of planetary beings; then in a race

Vying with light in swiftness, like a king

Of void and chaos, rising up on high

Above the stars in awful majesty.110

Davy also referred frequently in his later lectures to comparisons between the poetic and the scientific imagination. In 1807 he wrote in terms that would be echoed both by Coleridge and by Keats: ‘The perception of truth is almost as simple a feeling as the perception of beauty; and the genius of Newton, of Shakespeare, of Michael Angelo, and of Handel, are not very remote in character from each other. Imagination, as well as the reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery. Discrimination and delicacy of sensation, so important in physical research, are other words for taste; and love of nature is the same passion, as the love of the magnificent, the sublime, and the beautiful.’111


By the end of 1800 Davy’s Researches, and his early papers on galvanism in Nicholson’s Journal, were rousing serious interest in London. He began receiving unofficial approaches from Sir Joseph Banks and Benjamin Thompson, and there was talk of a professorship in chemistry. In February 1801 he again visited London, and was officially interviewed by the Committee of the Royal Institution-Banks, Thompson and Henry Cavendish-who had been considering offering him an initial post as Assistant Chemical Lecturer, with a possible professorship to follow. He then had the decisive Soho breakfast with Banks, who quickly determined to poach him from Beddoes, and capture him for the Institution. His first shrewd move was to send him on to have informal drinks with Benjamin Thompson, an altogether different kind of patron.112

Thompson (1753-1814) was a strange and remarkable man, with none of Sir Joseph’s diplomatic bonhomie, but with equal energy and an even more ruthless drive. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he was an American citizen from Boston, but had been knighted by the British government and then appointed Count Rumford by the Elector of Bavaria, an unusual combination of honours. In the course of his extraordinary, picaresque life, Rumford was variously a professional soldier, an inventor and man of science, a Minister of State, a philanthropist and a philanderer. His tall, thin, imposing figure, permanently stooped, combined with large, bright, attentive eyes and a spectacular Roman nose, gave him the appearance of some powerfully beaked and faintly sinister bird of prey about to pounce-an appearance much loved by cartoonists such as James Gillray. As the inventor of various heating and lighting appliances, and propounder of a correct theory of heat (proving Lavoisier’s ‘caloric’ to be a product of friction), Thompson instantly recognised young Davy’s potential-and duly pounced.

Attractive terms of employment were mooted (though not agreed), and Davy was already writing to Davies Giddy on 8 March 1801 about the wonderful prospects held out by Banks and Thompson, his imminent move to London, and the promise of fresh funding for his work on galvanism. He acknowledged Beddoes’s plans at Clifton for ‘a great popular physiological work’ on therapeutic gases, but this, he had to admit, was a work on which he would not be collaborating after all. It might, in fact, be a dead end. At all events, science now called him elsewhere.


There may also have been non-scientific reasons for Davy’s departure from Bristol. Amidst the youthful and enthusiastic circle of the Pneumatic Institute, it was his friendship with Anna Beddoes that had developed the most unexpectedly.113 He had gradually discovered that her sunny directness disguised deep unhappiness within the marriage.114 Thomas Beddoes was not a tender or communicative husband, and suffered from bouts of deep depression, what he himself called his ‘Hamlet complaint’. In June 1801 he would become so depressed about his debilitating asthma attacks that he allegedly asked Anna’s permission to commit suicide, or so she later told Davy.115

In consequence, Anna was a young woman secretly desperate for affection, and the early romantic walks along the Avon with Davy had soon turned into tearful confessions and declarations. Both had begun sending each other poems. One of Davy’s started unguardedly:

Anna thou art lovely ever

Lovely in tears

In tears of sorrow bright

Brighter in joy…

In return she sent him unsigned verses addressed to ‘Mr Davy, Pneumatic Institution, Dowry Square, Hotwells’. She apologised for troubling him with her frustrations and miseries, but suggested moments of precious intimacy:

When to thy trembling hand I silent gave

My bloodless arm, impatient for the grave…

Davy’s poems are simple and fragmentary, sometimes trying out his elementary Greek in short epigrams:

The beautiful girl

Is not mine,

Not mine the beautiful…

He also covered his notebook with repeated pencil drawings of Anna’s profile and blonde, windswept hair.116

Anna’s poems, some copied into Davy’s notebook, are longer and more melodramatic than his. They seem to play with the idea of suicide, and with the guilty sense that she is making impossible emotional demands on Davy. In one she imagines (or perhaps repeats) his angry refusal of these poignant advances. Here she appears to write accusingly about herself in Davy’s own voice, or perhaps quoting him:

Am I then called to minister relief

To her who rudely plunged me into grief,

Who dropped my infant errors into day

And tore the veil of secrecy away…?117

It is not clear what Davy’s ‘infant errors’ might be, unless memories of Mademoiselle Nancy at Penzance. Davy also kept other poems signed ‘Fidelissima’ (’your most faithful lady’) from a slightly later date, which may be a continuation of Anna’s, or from another woman entirely.118Perhaps there was some more tangled history of deception and betrayal at Bristol, among the young ladies who appear only as initials in his published Researches. Certainly Davy later wrote to his confidant Dr John King of indulging in ‘physical sympathies’ at Bristol of which he was subsequently ashamed. A little more light is thrown on this flirtation or frustrated love affair (or whatever it was) with Anna by several fragments of later correspondence.

Shortly after Davy left Bristol, his friend Dr King sent him news that Anna and Dr Beddoes were expecting a baby. Davy was clearly pleased, and wrote back on 4 November 1801. He thought motherhood would greatly improve what he now regarded as Anna’s unstable state of mind. ‘How delightful a thing it would be to see that woman of Genius, of feeling, of candour, of idleness, of caprice, instructing and nourishing an infant, losing in one deep sympathy many trifling hopes and many trifling fears.’119

In spring 1802, Anna Beddoes gave birth to a baby girl, christened Anna Maria, to whom Davy addressed several poems over the next few years, calling her ‘Nature’s fairest child/A flower of springtime, rude and wild’. In 1804 he wrote the child a nine-stanza birthday poem, dedicated ‘To A.B-2 years old’ and again describing her fondly as ‘a sweet blossom of the early spring of life’.120

At the same time he continued sending occasional poems to Anna herself, carefully annotating one, ‘Written in the coach December 25 1803, passing from Bath to Bristol’. In these simple, sentimental lyrics he looked back nostalgically to what he described as ‘Life’s golden morn’, and the ‘anguish and the joys’ of the early Bristol days.

Its love was wild its friendship free

Its passion changeful as the light

That on an April day you see

Changeful and yet ever bright.121

In the event, Anna was not in fact made any happier or more fulfilled by motherhood. Soon after her daughter’s birth she abandoned her husband and ran off for several months with Davy’s wealthy Penzance friend and patron Davies Giddy.122 Yet this did not break the marriage to the long-suffering Dr Beddoes, nor the confidential friendship with Davy. Five years later, in 1806, she and Davy met again in London, and she congratulated him on his lectures and asked him to send her his portrait, a characteristically provocative request. Davy sent it with a copy of his poem ‘Glenarm by Moonlight’, with further nostalgic memories of their Avon riverside walks together.

Think not that I forget the days,

When first, through rough unhaunted ways,

We moved along the mountain side,

Where Avon meets the Severn tide;

When in the spring of youthful thought

The hours of confidence we caught…123

Perhaps he did not realise what emotions these lines would stir up. But either then, or shortly after, he gently tried to disentangle himself from the correspondence, and asked Anna to forget him. This produced an agonised, and not entirely coherent reply, written on 26 December 1806. It gives the best glimpse of what might have happened between them at Bristol. ‘I suppose from the experience you have had of my conduct-but you cannot tell how much pain your last observation gave me-that I should forget you, and think no more about you! Yet I must certainly deserve it for I have in former days treated you with unkindness that you have the generosity to forgive…Of all those who know you best I have most reason to value the qualities of your heart, and I believe at this moment you have not a more sincere admirer, no, not even amongst the young and beautiful, than she who has treated you with such ungentleness.’

Anna went on to say that the last time she saw Davy in London, he appeared ‘so vividly alive’ that it roused the ‘almost expiring spark of ambition’ in her bosom. Ambition for what, she does not explain. The letter tails off in ill-defined sadness, indeed perhaps exactly the kind of ill-defined sadness that originally captured young Davy’s heart and sympathies. ‘I know not for what reason it is but I cannot write or think of you without the most melancholy sensations. Adieu…I am almost ashamed to send this letter…destroy it.124

Clearly some powerful emotions existed between them during these years. A decade later Davy would confide to another woman: ‘You can have no idea at all of what [Anna] was…She possessed a fancy almost poetical in the highest sense of the word, great warmth of affection, and disinterestedness of feeling; and under favourable circumstances, she would have been, even in talents, a rival of [her half-sister] Maria.’125

If there was attraction, even seduction, it would be hard to tell who initiated it. But it may be wrong to consider Davy as emotionally naïve, or exploited, at Bristol. Coleridge later remarked enigmatically: ‘a young poet may do without being in love with a woman-it is enough if he loves-but to a young chemist it would be salvation to be downright romantically in love’.126 Davy’s later bawdy remarks about women to his friend Dr King suggest a certain worldliness, while Tom Wedgwood gave him, as a suitable parting present to take to London, an exquisite porcelain statuette of a naked Venus.127


Bristol also saw the end of a scientific love affair. After some eighteen months of extensive experiments on nitrous oxide in the Dowry Square laboratory, Davy had been forced to conclude that the gas, remarkable as it was, could not be used for therapeutic purposes. This was his private opinion, although no such explicit statement was published in Researches. For Thomas Beddoes this was a crushing disappointment, particularly as it was exactly what Joseph Banks had always predicted. Banks had written to James Watt: ‘in the case of Dr Beddoes’s project-I do not fully understand it, &…I do not expect any beneficial consequences will be derived from its being carried into execution.’128 It looked as if Beddoes’s young protégé had inadvertently undermined the entire raison d’être of the Pneumatic Institute.

Yet there was one major scientific discovery which hovered tantalisingly close to Davy’s grasp. Had he fully seized it, he would have made himself, Beddoes and the Pneumatic Institute famous forever. Though nitrous oxide could not cure physical disease, it could do something just as valuable: it could temporarily suspend physical pain, or at least the sensation of pain. The gas provided the key to an entirely new science, that of anaesthetics: literally, ‘the negation or blocking of feelings’.

Characteristically, Davy pounced upon the new concept, asserting in his laboratory notebook that the gas could certainly be used for suppressing even ‘intense physical pain’.129 He speculated on the physiological mechanism: ‘Sensible pain is not perceived after the powerful action of nitrous oxide because it produces for the time a momentary condition of other parts of the nerve connected with pleasure.’130 He successfully tried treating his own toothache from impacted wisdom teeth with nitrous oxide. ‘The pain diminished after the first four or five inspirations.’ But the effect did not last, and he did not take the next logical step of having the offending teeth removed while under the influence of nitrous oxide. The gas was seen as blotting out the consciousness of pain with pleasure, rather than suspending consciousness itself. Yet in many of his extreme experiments Davy had deliberately pushed himself into unconsciousness, and he knew this could be done without harm.

Later, writing up his experiments for Researches, he more explicitly stated the gas’s surgical potential: ‘As nitrous oxide in its extensive operation appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations in which no great effusion of blood takes place.’131 He added the caution about bleeding not to limit the gravity of operations in which anaesthesia might be applied, but because he believed nitrous oxide was only absorbed through venous blood. It might therefore become ineffective during a major operation when extensive haemorrhaging took place.

Part of Davy’s originality was simply to conceive of the radical idea of pain-free surgery. He later had long discussions with Coleridge about the nature and significance of human pain. Coleridge wondered, for example, why God might have created a world in which human childbirth, one of the great productive aims of nature, was so painful as well as so dangerous for women.132 This was a prophetic speculation, as it turned out, for nitrous oxide mixed with oxygen eventually became one of the standard anaesthetic procedures used during labour, especially if difficult or prolonged.

When he read Researches in December 1800, sent to him by Longman with the new edition of Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge wrote to Davy wondering if he had had further communication with the leading London surgeon Sir Anthony Carlisle, ‘concerning Pain’, as they had all once discussed it during his London visit. ‘It is a subject which exceedingly interests me-I want to read something by somebody expressly on Pain, if only to give arrangement to my own thoughts, though if it were well treated, I have little doubt it would revolutionise them.’ He later urged Davy himself to write such a philosophical treatise on pain.133

Many standard operations in the early nineteenth century-being cut for kidney stone, having teeth removed, or a wounded limb amputated-were unimaginably painful. The pain also caused shock, which itself could kill. The only known form of painkiller-the soldier’s use of alcohol-was largely a method of controlling terror and deadening shock, not true anaesthesia.

But having made his momentous suggestion, Davy failed to pursue it. Characteristically, he rushed impetuously on to other discoveries. Although he published his conclusions, neither he nor Beddoes saw that the immense possibilities of anaesthesia were taken up. The loss to human well-being, in the alleviation of terror and suffering on the operating table for another two generations, was incalculable. Fanny Burney’s account of her own mastectomy-having a breast removed, without anaesthetics, by a military surgeon in her Paris apartment in 1811-is perhaps more shattering than any account of a limb amputated on the battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars.

It would seem that Davy missed the greatest medical opportunity of his early career. As late as 1831, his polemical biographer J.A. Paris dismissed the whole nitrous oxide experiment as absurd. ‘It will be admitted that there must have been something singularly ludicrous in the whole exhibition. Imagine a party of grave philosophers, with bags of silk tied to their mouths, stamping, roaring and laughing about the apartment.’134 Nitrous oxide only began to be tried again experimentally some forty years later. This was in America, when Dr Horace Wells had a tooth extracted under the gas during a demonstration lecture in Connecticut in December 1844. Wells awoke, announced that he had not felt ‘a pin-prick’, and proclaimed ‘a new era in tooth-pulling’.135

But it was quite another chemical, ether, that provided the first true anaesthesia for major operations. The American surgeon William Thomas Morton successfully amputated a man’s leg under ether at the Massachusetts General Hospital on 16 October 1846. Two months later, on 31 December, a British surgeon, Mr Lansdowne, performed a similar amputation at the Bristol General Hospital. Thereafter anaesthesia by ether was used widely in both the Crimean and the American Civil War. But the final acceptance of anaesthesia in Britain did not really come until Queen Victoria admitted to having taken a whiff of chloroform during the birth of her son Prince Leopold in April 1853.

Yet the historic Bristol operation of December1846 suggests that Davy’s speculation about anaesthesia did eventually bear fruit. The chemist supplying the ether, William Herapath, sent a detailed description of the anaesthetic procedure to the Bristol Mirror in January 1847. It is clear from his closing remarks that he knew of Davy’s Researches, still a legend in Bristol, and had been both inspired and cautioned by them: ‘I have no doubt the inspiration of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) would have a similar effect upon the nerves of sensation as the vapour of ether, as I have noticed that persons under its influence are totally insensible to pain; but I do not think it would be advisable to use it in surgical cases, from its frequently producing an ungovernable disposition to muscular exertion, which would render the patient unsteady and embarrass the operator.’136 

Before leaving Bristol, Davy wrote a long letter of thanks to his old benefactor, John Tonkin in Penzance. Besides expressing his gratitude and his determination to do ‘something for the public good’, he included an interesting tour d’horizon of scientific developments as he saw them in January 1801. While public affairs, economic hardship and the war with France filled him with ‘confusion’ and dismay, the immense possibilities of scientific research had never looked brighter. The cowpox inoculation, pioneered by Dr Edward Jenner, was becoming general ‘not in England alone, but over the whole of Europe’, and promised to annihilate smallpox. Galvanism held out immense possibilities, and ‘promises to unfold some of the laws of our nature’. Even the Pneumatic Institution, ‘in spite of the political odium attached to its founder’, might yet cure some ‘obstinate diseases’. There is no record of what Davy said, or wrote, on these matters to his mentor Dr Beddoes; or to Anna Beddoes.137


On Monday, 9 March 1801, Humphry Davy left Bristol to take up his post as Assistant Lecturer in Chemistry and Director of the Chemical Laboratory at the Royal Institution, Albemarle Street, London. His salary was £100 per annum, plus ‘coals and candles’ and a small set of attic rooms. This was his first professional scientific post, and he was to remain associated with the Institution for the rest of his life.

Founded only two years previously in 1799, the Institution had originally been conceived by Count Rumford as a centre for displaying the latest mechanical inventions, and providing workshops and lectures for the poor, modelled on his earlier philanthropic ventures in Munich. But under the influence of Cavendish and Banks (who obtained a Royal Charter in January 1800), an ambitious new lecture theatre and laboratory were installed in the new Albemarle Street premises, and the Institution’s emphasis began to move towards original scientific research and ‘regular courses of philosophical lectures and experiments’.

But the Royal Institution had yet to make its mark on London intellectual life, or to find its natural audience-or indeed any significant audience at all-as the founders (and their subscribers) were only too aware. Accordingly, Davy seized his chance, and set out to make a splash with his inaugural lecture on 25 April, choosing the challenging and perplexing subject of ‘Galvanism’. Contrary to expectation, the crowd that gathered that evening was large and fashionable, with Banks and Count Rumford sitting expectantly and alarmingly in the front row.

Davy bounced onto the dais-small, youthful, glowing and enthusiastic. He spoke directly to his audience without notes. He made a thrilling narrative out of each experiment, performing a series of spectacular galvanic demonstrations-sparks, fulminations, explosions-with all the skill of a conjuror. Yet his scientific explanations were simple, logical and lucid. He also had the highly unusual gift of putting the science in its historical and social context: he spoke of ‘the history of galvanism, detailed the successive discoveries’, and its possible future.

He received glowing reports in the press. The Philosophical Magazine described how ‘Mr Davy (late of Bristol)’ presented a wholly new branch of philosophy, ‘we mean the galvanic phenomena’, and held his audience, including many ladies, completely spellbound. ‘Mr Davy, who seems to be very young, acquitted himself admirably well. From the sparkling intelligence of his eye, his animated manner, and the tout ensemble, we have no doubt of him attaining distinguished excellence.’ Banks and Rumford realised they had chosen a winner.138

Later that exciting year, Davy succeeded in publishing his first paper in the Royal Society’s prestigious journal, the Philosophical Transactions. To Banks’s satisfaction it had nothing to do with therapeutic gases, but concerned an improved form of voltaic battery, sufficiently powerful and sustained that it could be used to enhance an entirely new form of chemical analysis.139

But Davy’s departure had a disastrous effect on Thomas Beddoes, who soon after abandoned further research, and returned to more conventional medicine. He converted the Pneumatic Institute into a charitable dispensary, the Preventative Medicine Institution, and published his collected essays as Hygia: Essays Moral and Medical (1802). Though as generous and philanthropic as ever, Beddoes came to believe that all his work on gases had been a failure. His private life was also falling apart. Anna twice left him to pursue Davies Giddy to London, in 1804 and 1806. He still practised as a physician, but was overworked and overweight, and discovered he was suffering from heart disease. In Hygia he gave a sombre definition of ‘the philanthropic doctor’, a far cry from his original ideals: ‘One who is humane in his conduct not so much from sudden impulses of passion and pity, as from a settled conviction of the misery prevailing among mankind.’140

Meanwhile, Davy was going on triumphantly to success in London. He discovered that he was extremely good at lecturing, and what’s more, he adored doing it in front of large audiences. In June 1801 he wrote to his confidant John King at Bristol: ‘My labours are finished for the season as to public experimenting and public communication. My last lecture was on Saturday evening. Nearly 500 persons attended…There was Respiration, Nitrous Oxide, and unbounded Applause. Amen!’

He was now being sought out by members of the scientific community from all over London, and he gave private demonstrations in the basement laboratory of the Institution. Regular parties of philosophers met to inhale the ‘joy inspiring’ gas. ‘It has produced a great sensation. Ca ira!’ Davy presented nitrous oxide to the members of the Askesian Society, but again there was no suggestion of anaesthetic applications. He added dizzily: ‘I dream of greatness and utility-I dream of Science restoring to Nature what Luxury, what Civilization have stolen from her-pure hearts, the forms of angels, bosoms beautiful, and panting with Joy & Hope.’141 Not the least satisfactory part of lecturing was that Davy-still only twenty-two-found that he had attracted a large number of these ‘angels’ to his mixed audiences. From this time on he began to receive invitations, billets-doux, and especially Valentine poems, from young women, many of them anonymous.

He spent the rest of the summer walking in Wales, looking back at his two momentous years in Bristol. He told his old colleague King: ‘I think of you often and my heart often yearns towards the old ideas of Clifton, the Hotwells, and the moral and natural beings that beautify them.’ But he felt that in coming to London he had passed through a necessary period of emotional turmoil and ‘transition’, and that he could never go back. He coded his words to King in chemical jargon: ‘The season that I passed in the country was a season of mental reaction-new ambitions had produced in my mind new hopes and new fears. It was necessary that these hopes and fears should sink into consciousness. Irritability was induced and physical Stimulation was recurred to. You will understand me, and the explanation will plead as an excuse for me that I sometimes drowned moral sympathy in the vicious & vile physical sympathy.’142

The source of physical stimulation was probably nitrous oxide, to which he had become briefly addicted. But what exactly Davy meant by ‘vicious & vile physical sympathy’ is less obvious. He seems to imply unhappy sexual involvement, yet it is hardly the sort of phrase he would have used in relation to Anna Beddoes. Again the question arises, whether young Davy had become entangled with other young women patients at Bristol. Now, at any rate, in London he had left it all behind. ‘I am now a new being. Pardon my egotism. I have moral feelings, deep moral feelings saying to me, “remember your friends”. They are connected with vivid dreams of hope, dreams of…their happiness.’143

On 21 January 1802 he launched a hugely successful second set of lectures on Agricultural Chemistry. Among the most enthusiastic members of his audience was Coleridge, who regularly attended his lectures, filling sixty pages of notebook with materials. ‘I attended Davy’s lectures to enlarge my stock of metaphors,’ Coleridge wrote afterwards. ‘Every subject in Davy’s mind has the principle of Vitality. Living thoughts spring up like Turf under his feet.’144

These lectures opened with Davy’s masterly ‘Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry’, which became famous as a Romantic statement of the progressive role of science in society.145 He began by claiming a central place for chemistry in the development of scientific knowledge: botany, zoology, medicine, physiology, agriculture, all ultimately depended on knowledge of chemical processes. He even included the ‘sublime’ science of astronomy, with a salute to Herschel and his superb telescopes and metal alloy mirrors: ‘The progress of the astronomer had been in some measure commensurate with that of the chemical artist, who, indeed, by his perfection of materials used for astronomical apparatus, has afforded the investigating philosopher the means of tracing the revolution of the planets, and of penetrating into space, so as to discover the forms and appearances of the distant parts of the universe.’146

But Davy wished to make even bigger, philosophical claims for the scientific spirit and imagination. Drawing on his previous exchanges with Coleridge about the ‘hopeful’ nature of scientific progress, he put before his audience a vision of human civilisation itself, brought into being by the scientific drive to enquire and create. Science had woken and energised mankind from his primal ignorance and ‘slumber’. This was in effect Davy’s version of the Prometheus myth: ‘Man, in what is called a state of nature, is a creature of almost pure sensation. Called into activity only by positive wants, his life is passed either in satisfying the cravings of the common appetites, or in apathy, or in slumber. Living only in moments he calculates little on futurity. He has no vivid feelings of hope, or thoughts of permanent and powerful actions. And unable to discover causes, he is either harassed by superstitious dreams, or quietly and passively submissive to the mercy of nature and the elements.’

But once woken by science, man is capable of ‘connecting hope with an infinite variety of ideas’. He can provide for his basic needs, and anticipate future enjoyments. Above all science enables him to shape his future, actively. ‘It has bestowed on him powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments.’147

Davy announced to his spellbound audience that they were witnessing the dawn of ‘a new science’, and it would be wonderful: ‘The dim and uncertain twilight of discovery, which gave to objects false or indefinite appearances, has been succeeded by the steady light of truth, which has shown the external world in its distinct forms, and in its true relations to human powers. The composition of the atmosphere, and the properties of gases, have been ascertained; the phenomenon of electricity has been developed; the lightnings have been taken from the clouds; and lastly, a new influence has been discovered, which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only by animal organs.’148

Davy was deliberately proposing a revolutionary view of science, and for a moment his audience must have believed that the wild young man from Bristol was going to propose political revolution as well. Banks, and others in the front row of the theatre, held their breath when Davy launched into the following declaration: ‘The guardians of civilization and of refinement, the most powerful and respected members of society, are daily growing more attentive to the realities of life; and, giving up many of their unnecessary enjoyments in consequence of the desire to be useful, are becoming the friends and protectors of the labouring part of the community.’149 What French, insurrectionary sentiment would follow from Beddoes’s erstwhile protégé?

Yet Davy knew very well that it would be fatal to raise any suggestion of social revolution, anything that smacked of ‘Continental’ ideology. With a skilful change of pace and direction, he hastened to dispel any vision of a democratic future. On the contrary, ‘the unequal division of property and of labour, the difference of rank and condition amongst mankind, are the sources of power in civilized life, and its moving causes, and even its very soul’.

The final version of this passage stands out as deliberately aimed at the aristocratic supporters of the Institution, and must have greatly relieved Banks. Nonetheless, Davy found his own way of emphasising the radical nature of scientific progress, and this too Banks must have liked. He returned to the image of dawning light, but he used it with deliberate British understatement. Science did not deal in extravagant republican dreams, utopian nonsense, or dangerous French political abstractions. It was plain, reasonable, empirical, patriotic: ‘In this view we do not look to distant ages, or amuse ourselves with brilliant, though delusive dreams concerning the infinite improveability of man, the annihilation of labour, disease, and even death. But we reason by analogy with simple facts. We consider only a state of human progression arising out of its present condition. We look for a time that we may reasonably expect, for a bright day of which we already behold the dawn.’150

But this was not quite all. Davy’s final claim for science was an extraordinary one, and must have much struck Coleridge. Science was psychologically, even spiritually, therapeutic. ‘It may destroy diseases of the imagination, owing to too deep a sensibility; and it may attach the affections to objects, permanent, important, and intimately related to the interests of the human species.’ The value of science was, in this sense, universal, ‘even to persons of powerful minds’, whose primary interests were ‘literary, political or moral’. It strengthened the habit of ‘minute discrimination’, and encouraged a language of ‘simple facts’. But perhaps Coleridge would have felt that Davy was on less certain ground when he added that science tended ‘to destroy the influence of terms connected only with feeling’.151

Among other crucial ideas in the body of the lectures, Davy further explained and popularised the concept of the ‘carbon cycle’, as originally discovered by Priestley and Lavoisier. He presented it as the key to life on earth, a continuous universal recycling of carbon and oxygen between plants and humans. The metaphysical emphasis he gave to this law of harmony in nature may well have influenced Coleridge’s letters and poems on ‘the One Life’, written during the spring and summer of 1802.

Later that year Coleridge worked with Wordsworth on the Preface to the third edition of Lyrical Ballads, describing the function and future of poetry. They collaborated on a famous passage connecting the ‘discoveries of the men of science’ with the imaginative work of the poet. Davy was clearly the inspiring figure behind this declaration: ‘If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed.’152

Davy’s success gave him new confidence. When Anna Beddoes came up to London with her sister Maria Edgeworth, he proudly showed them round the Institution in a way that much struck Maria, her sharp novelist’s eye seeing a new character emerging. ‘He was much improved since I saw him last-talking sound sense and has left off being the “cosmology” man. After we had seen all the wonders of the Royal Institution, Mr Davy walked with us and got into the depths of metaphysics in the middle of Bond Street. I don’t know whether he or the Bond Street Loungers amused me most.’153

Davy’s ‘metaphysics’ and charismatic lecture style increased the Institution’s annual subscriptions dramatically, and began to stabilise its problematic finances, much to Count Rumford’s satisfaction (since he had been the Institution’s major private donor). By 1803 Albemarle Street had been designated the first one-way in London, to avoid the traffic jam of carriages on Davy’s lecture days. It was also noticed that he was especially popular with young women, and a cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson shows a commanding, romantic figure holding his mixed audience entranced, with a clutch of young women crowded into the left-hand balcony seats. They are gazing down attentively at Davy, while themselves being ogled by an ancient academic. This was the new science as sexual chemistry.

Another cartoon by James Gillray, ‘New Discoveries in Pneumaticks!’, played on the less romantic but equally popular notion of chemistry as ‘stinks’, and the idea that laughing gas could produce a truly roomshaking fart. Professor Thomas Garnett, Count Rumford and Sir Joseph Banks are all identifiable in this cartoon, and again nearly half Davy’s audiences are women, many of them scribbling notes (or possibly billets-doux).

A French tourist, Louis Simond, described Davy’s electrifying lecture technique, with its special appeal to young students and women. Though his ideas were so radical, he noted that Davy was careful to make conventional references to the beauties of divine creation. Meanwhile he staged spectacular and often dangerous chemical demonstrations, that produced gasps of amazement and bursts of applause. Though some were critical of these performances as mere showmanship, they were skilfully designed as genuine scientific demonstrations, and Davy believed that surprise and wonder were central to a proper appreciation of science. Banks heartily approved.154

Davy’s advancement now became rapid, not to say meteoric. In June 1802 he was promoted from Assistant to full Lecturer. The following year, after another brilliant series on Agricultural Chemistry, he was appointed to the Professorship of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, replacing Garnett, who had found himself eclipsed by the young star and quietly resigned. Davy’s salary increases were also rapid. In 1803 he received £200 per annum. In November 1804 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, and his professorial salary at the Institution was doubled to £400 per annum. He soon began to receive invitations to give summer lectures in other university cities, notably Dublin, receiving payments that quickly trebled his annual income.

Coleridge, marooned in Keswick in the Lake District and suffering increasingly from opium addiction and marital unhappiness, could still take genuine delight in Davy’s success. ‘I rejoice in Davy’s progress. There are three Suns recorded in Scripture-Joshua’s, that stood still; Hezekiah’s, that went backwards; and David’s that went forth and hastened on his course, like a bridegroom from his chamber. May our friend’s prove the latter!’ Continuing in scriptural mood, he prophesied that Davy in London would have to battle ‘two Serpents at the cradle of his genius’, Dissipation and Devotees, which might degrade true scientific Ambition into Vanity. ‘But the Hercules will strangle both the reptile monsters.’ He still felt a powerful belief in Davy’s scientific mission. ‘I have hoped, and do hope, more proudly of Davy than of any other man…he has been endeared to me more than any other man, by being a Thing of Hope to me (more, far more than myself to my own self in my most genial moments).’155

Davy was proud to play that role. The following year, hearing that Coleridge was about to take ship to the Mediterranean, an exile which he secretly believed would be permanent, Davy sent him a magnificent, hyperbolic letter of valediction and encouragement: ‘In whatever part of the World you are, you will often live with me, not as a fleeting Idea but as a recollection possessed of Creative energy, as an IMAGINATION winged with fire, inspiriting and rejoicing. You must not live much longer without giving to all men the proof of your Power…You are to be the Historian of the Philosophy of feeling.-Do not in any way dissipate your noble nature. Do not give up your birthright.’156

The original West Country group of friends was gradually being scattered. Davy continued to write to Southey, now settled in the Lake District, and to Tom Poole, busy with his tanning in Nether Stowey; but he steadily lost touch with Beddoes and King in Bristol. One of the sharpest breaks with his Penzance past came with the news of Gregory Watt’s lingering death from consumption in October 1804, at the age of thirty-two. Watt had delivered a paper on Cornish geology at the Royal Society only the previous spring, and had recently written to Davy, ‘full of spirit’ about his future scientific work. The loss of his old friend shook Davy strangely. He was shocked into writing one of his most reflective and bleak speculative letters, his feelings giving ‘erring wings’ to his religious doubts and his rarely expressed scepticism.

For an uncharacteristic moment, individual ambition and achievement seemed meaningless to Davy: ‘Poor Watt!-He ought not to have died. I could not persuade myself that he would die…Why is this in the order of Nature, that there is such a difference in the duration and destruction of her works? If the mere stone decays, it is to produce a soil which is capable of nourishing the moss and lichen. When moss and lichen die and decompose, they produce a mold which becomes the bed of life to grass, and to a more exalted species of vegetable…But in man, the faculties and intellect are perfected: he rises, exists for a little while in disease and misery, and then would seem to disappear, without an end, and without producing any effect.’157

Nowhere in this bleak and heartfelt letter, written to another Bristol friend, his erstwhile laboratory assistant Clayfield, did Davy mention God, or any conventional notion of heaven. Instead, he tried to tell himself that there was some incomprehensible ‘arrangement’ by which Watt’s unfulfilled gifts would be ‘applied’ by Nature. He drew on a familiar analogy with the transformation of the butterfly, but even this took him in an odd and unexpected philosophical direction: ‘The caterpillar, in being converted into an inert scaly mass, does not appear to be fitting itself for an inhabitant of air, and can have no consciousness of the brilliancy of its future being. We are masters of the earth, but perhaps we are the slaves of some great and unknown beings…We suppose that we are acquainted with matter, and with all its elements, and yet we cannot even guess at the cause of electricity, or explain the law of the formation of the stones which fall from meteors. There may be beings-thinking beings, near us, surrounding us, which we do not perceive which we can never imagine. We know very little; but, in my opinion, we know enough to hope for the immortality, the individual immortality of the better part of man.158

This was the nearest Davy would come to any idea of the soul, or personal immortality. But what is surprising is his notion of mankind, the ‘masters of the earth’, being themselves subject to other and greater masters, alien powers elsewhere in the universe. He did not conceive of these as gods, but more like the extraterrestrial intelligences of science fiction, ‘thinking beings’, close by, but invisible, imperceptible, even unimaginable. He would return to this idea in the last book he ever wrote, Consolations in Travel.

In 1805 Davy branched out and gave his spring lectures at the Royal Institution ‘On Geology’. For this he had read the work of Hutton and Playfair, and grappled with the new controversies about the age of the earth, and whether its rocks were formed by flood or by volcanic action. His demonstrations included a large-scale model of a volcano, mounted on an insulated plate, that innocently emitted smoke, then suddenly burst into flames, and finally erupted in a cloud of ‘ash’. He also recalled his expeditions in Cornwall with Gregory Watt, and delivered a heartfelt elegy on this early, lost friend.159

Davy spent a relaxed summer in the Lake District, and climbed Helvellyn with Wordsworth, Southey and Walter Scott. They talked of Coleridge, who was still absent somewhere in the Mediterranean, and writing home ever less frequently. Davy hoped nonetheless that ‘his genius will call forth some new creations, and that he may bring back to us some garlands of never-dying verse’. He wrote to Coleridge, urging him to return to England and give a course of lectures on Poetry at the Royal Institution.

Davy returned to London to be awarded the Copley Medal by Banks (for some humdrum work on agricultural chemistry), and elected to the Council of the Royal Society. He was also invited to give the important annual series of Bakerian Lectures at the Royal Society, starting the following autumn. There seemed nothing that could now stop his career, and his meteoric rise to fame at the age of twenty-six. But he still needed to achieve a major scientific discovery to secure his name. In October his early hero Horatio Nelson, whose victory at the Nile he always associated with his professional beginnings in science, was killed at the battle of Trafalgar.


On 20 November 1806 Humphry Davy gave his first Bakerian Lecture, to a packed theatre at the Royal Society, with Joseph Banks presiding in the chair. It was a prestigious but challenging appointment. The series had been founded in 1775 by Daniel Defoe’s son-in-law, Henry Baker, and dedicated to advances in ‘Experimental Philosophy’. Some genuinely new discovery had to be demonstrated, and Davy was expected to choose as his subject either gases, or geology, or agricultural chemistry. Instead he announced that he would be ‘investigating and elucidating’ the nature of electricity, the use of the new voltaic battery, and the possibilities of opening up a wholly new field of ‘electro-chemical analysis’. The lecture created an international sensation. It would be followed by four more over the next four years: the second Bakerian on 19 November 1807, the third on 15 December 1808, the fourth on 15 November 1809, and the fifth and last on 15 November 1810.160

Davy began his first lecture with a characteristically enticing tour d’horizon: ‘It will be seen that Volta has presented to us a key which promises to lay open some of the most mysterious recesses of nature. Till this discovery, our means were limited; the field of pneumatic research had been exhausted, and little remained for the experimentalist except minute and laborious processes. There is now before us a boundless prospect of novelty in science; a country unexplored, but noble and fertile in aspect; a land of promise in philosophy.161

He first set out to clarify the nature of electricity, which was still not remotely understood. It was popularly regarded as an invisible and volatile fluid stored in glass Leyden jars, ever ready to leap out with a bang. Against all appearances, Davy argued, the electrical charge stored in Leyden jars or produced by voltaic batteries was no different in kind from that produced by a stormcloud, a ‘torpedo’ or electric eel, or a handcranked friction generator, except that it was more manageable and sustained. Moreover, it was energy produced by chemical changes. The tingle produced by acid saliva on a metal tooth filling is just such a chemical change. ‘A plate of zinc and a plate of silver, brought into contact with each other, and applied to the tongue, produce a strong caustic sensation. This is analogous with…the experiment of Galvani, on the excitation of the muscles of animals.’162

Next, he demonstrated that electricity did not itself ‘generate’ matter, as most of his contemporaries thought, but was a form of pure energy. It was, he argued, essentially bi-polar energy, divided into a negative charge (associated with heating and expansion) and a positive charge (associated with cooling and contraction). Lightning, for example, was generated by negatively charged stormclouds meeting positively charged ones.163 (Modern physics would explain lightning as caused by a massive discharge of static electricity, generated by agitated electrons within a single stormcloud.)

Davy then set out a meticulous series of experiments, using a number of different salts and alkalis, which proved that there was such a thing as ‘chemical affinity’ throughout nature. That is, chemical materials were held together, or bonded, by the positive and negative energies of electricity. By using the voltaic battery as an analytical tool, and ‘decomposing’ various metals and earths by electrolysis (usually over several days), he promised to reveal entirely new elements, hitherto unknown and unnamed. These investigations ‘can hardly fail to enlighten our philosophical system of the earth; and may possibly place new powers in our reach’.164

Throughout, Davy referred confidently to scientific work going on across Europe, notably by Berzelius and Potin in Stockholm, and Gay-Lussac and Thénard in Paris. But he calmly explained that he had corrected, refined or overtaken all of their experiments. He was in effect claiming that British chemistry, for the first time since Hooke and Boyle in the seventeenth century, led the scientific world. This first Bakerian Lecture was both brilliant and challenging, but so far Davy had merely set out his stall. It was not until the revelations of the second Bakerian Lecture that he hoped the full, revolutionary impact of his work would be recognised.

In the interim, Davy spent much of the summer of 1807 either fly-fishing or trying to persuade Coleridge to undertake a series of literary lectures at the Royal Institution. These turned out to be very similar pursuits. Coleridge had returned from Malta inspired and refreshed by his experiences (among other things, he had fallen in love with a Sicilian prima donna), but more hopelessly addicted to opium than ever. Aware of his fragile state, Davy wrote briskly to their mutual friend Tom Poole: ‘In the present condition of society, his opinions in matters of taste, literature and metaphysics must have a healthy influence.’

Davy was also optimistic about the state of the war against France. ‘Buonaparte seems to have abandoned the idea of invasion, and if our government is active, we have little to dread from a maritime war…The wealth of our island may be diminished, but the strength of the people cannot easily pass away; and our literature, our science, and our arts, and the dignity of our nature, depend little upon external relations. When we had fewer colonies than Genoa, we had Bacons and Shakespeares.’ In fact, for Davy, science was becoming increasingly patriotic.165

On 19 November 1807 Davy gave his second Bakerian Lecture at the Royal Society. He dramatically described how he had just isolated two wholly new elements, potassium and sodium, by ‘electrolysis’. By ingenious use of the Institution’s voltaic batteries he had over several hours charged and decomposed the common alkalis soda and potash in a vacuum flask, and found the unknown chemicals forming in a crust at the positive and negative poles of the battery. When he extracted the globules of potassium from the crust of potash, they burst spontaneously into an astonishing, bright lilac-coloured flame. Sodium reacted similarly when plunged into water, producing an equally vivid orange flame. Here matter itself seemed to be breaking into life from a previously secret and hidden world, at the chemist’s sole command.

Davy had left these experiments perilously late, only a few weeks before the second Bakerian Lecture was due. Almost deliberately, like a journalist working to a deadline, he put himself under extraordinary pressure, and had to work with hectic speed. But that was what he liked. On 6 October 1807 his laboratory notebook records in huge, triumphant letters: ‘CAPITAL EXPERIMENT PROVING THE DECOMPOSITION OF POTASH’.

The description of this historic discovery is given dramatically enough in Davy’s final lecture text: ‘The potash began to fuse at both its points of electrization. There was a violent effervescence at the upper [positive] surface; and at the lower, or negative surface, there was no liberation of elastic fluid; but small globules having a high metallic lustre, and being precisely similar in visible characters to quick silver, appeared, some of which burnt with explosion and bright flame…These globules, numerous experiments soon showed to be the substance I was in search of.’166

But Davy’s real excitement and relief is only revealed in his assistant’s account of that day. The twenty-eight-year-old Professor of Chemistry became a schoolboy again. ‘When he saw the minute globules of potassium burst through the crust of potash, and take fire as they entered the atmosphere, he could not contain his joy-he actually danced about the room in ecstatic delight; some little time was required for him to compose himself to continue the experiment.’167 Davy had discovered the principle of ‘electro-chemical’ analysis, a term that he coined, and opened up the vast field for experiment that he had promised.

The lectures were greeted with universal excitement and praise. Banks was deeply impressed. When he had his official portrait painted in the Royal Society’s presidential chair the following year, wearing all his insignias and honours, he was shown holding a transcript of Davy’s Bakerian Lectures. In Bristol, his old patron Beddoes recorded proudly: ‘Davy has just solved one of the greatest problems in chemistry by decomposing the fixed alkalis.’168 The newly founded Edinburgh Review ran a series of long articles on the Bakerian Lectures, written by its rising young intellectual star Henry Brougham.169 Coleridge wrote to praise Davy’s ‘march of glory’.170

Even Davy’s acknowledged rivals saluted him. The renowned Scandinavian chemist Jacob Berzelius described it as one of the finest of all modern chemical experiments. The French Académie des Sciences, partly through the good offices of Gay-Lussac, awarded Davy the new Prix Napoléon, worth the enormous sum of 60,000 francs. The Académie issued a formal invitation that Davy come to Paris to collect it. It was a fine and challenging gesture at a time of bitter war between the two nations, but diplomatically there were difficulties from the start. Davy assumed he had won the total sum donated by Napoleon, but the actual prize consisted of the annual interest from that capital, a rather more modest 3,000 francs.171

For all his success, Davy was overworked and exhausted. Immediately after his lecture he had undertaken to oversee a ventilation scheme for Newgate Prison, and he fell dangerously ill with a form of jail fever in December 1807. He was near death for several weeks, and an invalid for several months. His patient physician, Dr Thomas Babington, a fellow fly-fisherman, became a friend for life. He did not return to his laboratory until 19 April 1808.

This brush with death at the age of twenty-nine only increased Davy’s celebrity, and raised his reputation in scientific circles. The Royal Institution issued daily public reports about his health, and gave a special lecture examining the significance of his work and comparing him to Bacon, Boyle and Cavendish. It also voted funds for a huge new voltaic battery to be constructed for his future use, a trough of ‘600 double plates of four inches square’, said to be four times as powerful as any in England. The following year, after the fourth Bakerian Lecture, a private subscription provided a 2,000-plate battery, now said patriotically to be more powerful than any in Europe-including, of course, France.172

From his sickbed, Davy succeeded in organising Coleridge’s first set of lectures on ‘Poetry and the Imagination’, which finally took place-after many dramatic interruptions-at the Royal Institution in spring 1808. Brilliant but intermittent, they have been called Davy’s most dangerous experiment, and he wrote his own long private reflections on Coleridge’s mixture of genius and ‘ruined’ sensibility. He adopted the view of the man of science looking down dispassionately on an artist, though in terms so florid that he seemed somehow to entangle himself in Coleridge’s own situation: ‘[Coleridge] has suffered greatly from Excessive Sensibility-the disease of genius. His mind is a wilderness in which the cedar & oak which might aspire to the skies are stunted in their growth by underwood, thorns, briars and parasitical plants. With the most exalted genius, enlarged views, sensitive heart & enlightened mind, he will be the victim of want of order, precision and regularity. I cannot think of him without experiencing mingled feelings of admiration, regard & pity.’173

Poetry, genius and eternity were much on Davy’s mind during his convalescence. Perhaps the break in his punishing laboratory routine allowed suppressed emotions to surface. As he was slowly recovering, he celebrated by writing a striking, hymn-like poem, ‘Lo! O’er the earth the kindling spirits pour’. It was filled with pantheistic visions of change and transformation, of godlike forces energising the whole earth; and with images that seem to refer to Coleridge’s view of intelligent Creativity active in the universe, and playing upon matter like an Aeolian harp:

All speaks of change: the renovated forms

Of long-forgotten things arise again;

The light of suns, the breath of angry storms,

The everlasting motions of the main.

These are but engines of the eternal will,

The One intelligence, whose potent sway

Has ever acted, and is acting still

While stars, and worlds and systems all obey.

Without whose power, the whole of mortal things

Were dull, inert, an unharmonious band.

Silent as are the harp’s untuned strings

Without the touches of the poet’s hand.174

Other, perhaps forbidden, emotions also surfaced. During his fever Davy later said that he had a repeated hallucination of a beautiful, tender, unknown woman who nursed him, held him and had ‘intellectual conversations’ with him. ‘[When] I contracted that terrible form of typhus fever known by the name of jail fever…there was always before me the form of a beautiful woman…This spirit of my vision had brown hair, blue eyes, and a bright rosy complexion, and was, as far as I can recollect, unlike any of the amatory forms which in early youth had so often haunted my imagination…Her figure was so distinct in my mind as to form almost a visual image…[but] as I gained strength the visits of my good angel, for so I called it, became less frequent.’175

Davy was fascinated by this hallucinatory experience, which may have recalled some of his earlier nitrous oxide visions. Yet it obviously touched some much deeper chord. He added, revealingly, that he was ‘passionately in love at the time’. From the fragmentary notes and Valentine poems he preserved (probably by mistake) in his notebooks, there were a number of young women who may have set their caps at him during his lectures of 1807. But this visionary woman, he insisted, was someone quite different, someone utterly unknown to him.

He was strangely precise on the matter. His vision was not the ‘lady with black hair, dark eyes, and pale complexion’ who was currently the object of his ‘admiration’. She was a younger woman, almost a girl, and of a different physical type: a glowing, youthful brownhaired girl, ‘a living angel’. Stranger still, Davy would claim that he actually met this ‘visionary female’ ten years later, in 1818, ‘during my travels in Illyria’. She was then ‘a very blooming and graceful maiden of fourteen or fifteen years old’.176 Finally he would meet her a third time, ten years later still, in 1827-28, when she was in her midtwenties and he was stoically enduring what turned out to be his last illness.177

Later Davy would remark on the mysterious ten-year pattern of this amorous cycle, each recurrence apparently taking place at the beginning of his own new decade: at thirty, at forty, at fifty. If there had been an earlier one, it would have been in 1798, when he turned twenty, and had just met Anna Beddoes. It suggests an area of private emotion and turmoil that would only be hinted at in confidential letters to his brother John, and in his later poetry.178


On 24 December 1808 Dr Thomas Beddoes died in Bristol, aged only forty-eight. He had been suffering from chronic heart disease, and had been faithfully nursed by his erring wife Anna, who had returned to him in his time of need. It seems he had written a number of letters to friends, including Davy, but received few replies, and felt forgotten. Neither Davy nor Coleridge had been in touch with their old mentor for several years.

Beddoes’s last publication was ‘A Letter to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, on the Prevailing Discontents, Abuses and Imperfections in Medicine’ (1808). In it he advocated a five-year training course for all physicians, financed by public taxation, and a national policy of preventative medicine: the first remarkable glimmerings of a National Health Service. There were also glimpses of the old radical doctor. He suggested that family health would be universally improved if all wives were provided (free of charge) with anatomy lectures, washing machines (steam-powered), fresh vegetables and pressure cookers.179

His death caused uneasy stirrings among the scattered circle of the original Bristol Institute, and self-questioning about their own careers. Davy wrote to Coleridge: ‘my heart is heavy. I would talk to you of your own plans, which I shall endeavour in every way to promote; I would talk to you of my own labours which have been incessant since I saw you, and not without result; but I am interrupted by very melancholy feelings which, when you see this, I know you will partake of…Very affectionately yours.’180

Coleridge replied with a passionate, guilty letter about Beddoes’s selfless medical career and quixotic generosity. He said he had wept ‘convulsively’ at the news of his death. It emerged that Anna had been looking for someone to write Beddoes’s biography. She had successively approached Davy, then Southey, then Davies Giddy, and finally Coleridge. But all finally turned her down. A dull Memoir was written by Dr John Stock in 1811, but it was Peter Roget who eventually produced a fine article for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, though not until 1824. Meanwhile Davies Giddy became the guardian of Anna’s children, having first taken the precaution of marrying a Miss Gilbert, and changing his perilous surname accordingly to Davies Gilbert. Anna herself moved to Bath, then Italy, settling in Rome. Her son, the poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-49), would spend twenty-five years writing a strange, semi-dramatic poem entitled Death’s Jest-Book, replete with grotesque imagery from medical surgery and his father’s laboratory, which he could just remember. When he could write no more, Thomas committed suicide in Basle, at the age of forty-five.181

Davy wrote thoughtfully in his journal of Beddoes’s shyness, his apparent remoteness in conversation, and his ‘wild and active imagination’, which he judged was equal to Erasmus Darwin’s, but too often hidden. He added wistfully: ‘On his death he wrote to me a most affecting letter regretting his scientific aberrations. I remember one expression: “like one who has scattered abroad the Avena Fatua of knowledge from which neither brand nor blossom nor fruit has resulted. I require the consolation of a friend.” ’ That last phrase would come to haunt Davy himself.182

By 1809 Davy’s reputation was powerfully in the ascendant. He was included in Volume 7 of the influential series Public Characters: Biographical Memoirs of Distinguished Subjects. The long entry praised his modesty and genius, described his ‘galvanic experiments’ at the Royal Institution, and gave a long summary of the Bakerian Lectures. He was presented as an exemplary figure from the new world of British science, a dedicated researcher ‘bent over his retorts’, unworldly and ignoring public fame. There was no hint of his future reputation for arrogance, ambition and professional jealousies.183

A huge composite portrait, Eminent Men of Science Living in 1807-8, was painted to commemorate the historic expansion in British science at this moment. In fact it represents a retrospective view, as the artist William Walker actually painted it around 1820. In it he depicted a group of thirty figures, all male, standing and sitting with grave formality in some ideal clubland smoking room. They include in the front ranks Davy, Herschel, Banks, Dalton, Cavendish and Jenner. Dr Thomas Beddoes is nowhere to be found. He had been forgotten, just as he feared.

The poet Anna Barbauld, who had previously written about Joseph Priestley’s epoch-making experiments, now singled out Davy’s scientific lectures as one of the glories of the age. Future historians would

Point where mute crowds on Davy’s lips reposed,

And Nature’s coyest secrets were disclosed.184

Her faintly mischievous image did not overlook the sexual frisson surrounding Davy’s popular performances, and naturally this aroused some jealousy. Some of Davy’s oldest friends worried about the effect on him of success and celebrity. Coleridge feared he was sacrificing himself to London fashion, ‘more and more determined to mould himself upon the age, in order to make the age mould itself upon him’.185 But perhaps this was the inevitable cost of such success.

One consequence of Davy’s celebrity was tempting offers to give public lectures outside London. In 1810 he accepted an invitation to Ireland to give his Chemical and Geological lectures for an exceptional fee of a thousand guineas. He lectured to packed theatres in Dublin in spring 1810, and again in spring 1811, when Trinity College conferred on him an honorary doctorate. In these lectures he particularly stressed the importance of scientific knowledge for women’s education, and for ‘the improvement of the female mind’. Milton was wrong on the subject, and Mary Wollstonecraft was right.186 Among his attentive and admiring audiences was a strikingly pretty and vivacious Scottish widow called Jane Apreece. At a glittering reception afterwards, Jane Apreece told Humphry Davy that she loved fishing.

 These days there are several large, white Davy tombstones leant against the south-east corner of the church, shrouded in nettles and deadly nightshade. They commemorate in deeply-cut but blurred lettering earlier members of the family, dating from the seventeenth or even sixteenth century. Plain and monolithic, one reads simply: ‘Sac. Mem. D. Davy et G. Davy’, without dates. The Ludgvan parish register records a Davy in 1588. The churchyard looks out over a tiny pub, a wood, and then a wild, bleak landscape of gorse and stones and broken fields, tumbling down to the sea. It reminds one that the Cornish sculptor Barbara Hepworth used to speak of ‘the pagan triangle of landscape’ between St Ives, St Just and Penzance (Hepworth Museum, St Ives).

 Borlase’s chemist shop, now known as the Peasgood Pharmacy, still exists on the same site at the top of Penzance. The old ‘Instructions for Apprentices’ still hang framed in its back dispensary, indicating working hours from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., when ‘shutters are put up’. Discipline was strict-‘all joking and trifling are forbidden during hours of business in the shop’-and minute: ‘In order to avoid using the mouth to moisten labels it is requisite that the gum brush or label-damper be always used. Biting of corks, licking of labels, licking of fingers or thumb for the purpose of taking up paper, are all prohibited as unclean and unbecoming…It is extremely important that all counters are kept free from muddles…’ Davy was to remember these instructions when he tried to impose order on the Royal Institution assistants twenty years later.

 Priestley gave a vivid account of an experiment in 1775, in which a mouse struggled for life in his air pump for over half an hour, thus proving that de-phlogistated air (oxygen) was a supporter of animal respiration. See Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men (2002). Perhaps it also proved something else, as deduced by Anna Barbauld. She wrote about this experiment from the mouse’s point of view, in a touching poem in which the ‘freeborn mouse’, cruelly imprisoned in its laboratory cage, appeals for its right to life, perhaps the first animal-rights manifesto ever written.

For here forlorn and sad I sit,

Within the wiry grate,

And tremble at the approaching morn

Which brings impending fate…

The cheerful light, the vital air,

Are blessings widely given;

Let Nature’s commoners enjoy

The common gifts of Heaven.

The well-taught philosophic mind

To all compassion gives;

Casts round the world an equal eye,

And feels for all that lives.

‘The Mouse’s Petition to Dr Priestley, Found in the Trap where he had been Confined all Night’ (1773).

 Lavoisier’s 1789 Preface makes one wonder when people really did first begin to look at objects in nature carefully, for their own sake. The idea of exquisite, close observation of natural phenomena has its own literary history. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia of 1664, with its exquisite drawings of fleas and other tiny creatures, championed the idea of minute observation at scales smaller than normal human vision. But the precise, even reverent contemplation of nature is clearly associated with the Romantics, and can be seen arriving in private journals and letters from the 1760s onwards. The journals of Joseph Banks and his colleagues in the South Seas, of Gilbert White in Hampshire, of Coleridge in Somerset, of Dorothy Wordsworth in the Lake District, all demonstrate this (almost sacred) attention to things simply and precisely observed. William Herschel wrote a brilliant paper on the nature of objective observation, and its particular problems in astronomy. Goethe wrote another in 1798 on the general problems of subjectivity, ‘Empirical Observation and Science’. In 1788 Edward Jenner published a chilling paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions on observing the murderous activity of a baby cuckoo in a sparrow’s nest. Jenner’s quiet, meticulous description of the baby cuckoo (while still blind) relentlessly wheelbarrowing its smaller ‘rival’ sparrow chick backwards, between its half-formed wings, up the side of the nest until it was thrown out, has all the power of a moral allegory, but remains completely objective in tone. ‘Observations on the Natural History of the Cuckoo, in a Letter to John Hunter FRA’ (1788). See Tim Fulford (ed.), Romanticism and Science (2002), vol 4.

 In 1795 Pitt had levied a tax on hair powder, to help raise funds for military campaigns abroad. The ribbon fell out of Beddoes’s letter as I unfolded it in the Truro archive, and I let out a republican whoop! that almost led to my ejection.

 The present square is subdued and beautiful, if distinctly run-down. No. 7 has no plaque behind its wisteria, and No. 6 has become the offices of a builders’ merchant. Nevertheless the distant memory of its great, subversive medical tradition still haunts the square: one worn old stone plate reads: ‘Robert Young, Surgeon’, while another ancient brass proclaims ‘Clifton Dispensary’.

 These confessional poems include ‘Written After Recovery from a Dangerous Illness’ (1808, Memoirs, pp.114-16); ‘The Massy Pillars of the Earth’ (1812, Memoirs, p.234); ‘The Fireflies’ (1819, Memoirs, pp.251-4); ‘The Eagles’(1821, Memoirs, p.279 and Salmonia, pp.98-100); ‘On the Death of Lord Byron’ (1824, Memoirs, p.285); ‘Ulswater’ (1825, Memoirs, pp.320-2); ‘Thoughts’ (1827, Memoirs, p.334); ‘The Waterfall of the Traun’ (1827, Memoirs, p.360). They will all appear later in this narrative.

 To this day there is still much controversy in the medical literature about Davy’s and Beddoes’s failure to pursue anaesthesia at this time, a debate hosted by the Association of the History of Anaesthesia. Several scholars suggest a ‘cultural’ as much as a technical inhibition. They argue that the late-eighteenth-century attitude to pain, in a surgical context, did not admit to the concept of a ‘pain-free’ operation. Pain itself was a natural and intrinsic part of the surgical procedure, and a surgeon’s ability to handle a patient’s pain-through his imposed psychological authority, his dexterity, and above all his sheer speed of amputation and extraction-was an essential part of his profession. In a word, there was the need for a ‘a paradigm shift’ to conceive of pain-free surgery. See Stephanie J. Snow, Operations without Pain (2005), Dr A.K. Adam, ‘The Long Delay: Davy to Morton’, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol 89, February 1996. For a masterly overview of surgical pain and procedure in the early nineteenth century, see Druin Burch, Digging Up the Dead (2007). The whole question will be pursued in my Chapter 7, ‘Dr Frankenstein and the Soul’.

 Davy had tried various versions of this prudential sentence in his notebooks, and it had evidently given him some trouble. He had, for example, first written not ‘sources of power’, but ‘germs of power in civilized life’, a much more tentative idea. Also, the uncharacteristic word ‘soul’ had originally been the more exuberant ‘spirit of life’. Most striking of all, he had finally deleted from the text of his Discourse any ideal of a cooperative society, in which the wealthy had a duty to fund research, an essential aspect of Beddoes’s vision. In his manuscript he had originally written: ‘What might we not hope for in a state of society in which the character of the philosopher [scientist] was united with that of the artist, and in which it became the business of men of property and power eminently to patronise the sciences?’ (Davy Archive, Royal Institution, Ms Box 13 (c), pp.57-8.)

 The temporary laboratory assistant in 1807 was Davy’s young cousin Edmund Davy. The following year the post was handed over to his brother John, then eighteen, who remained until 1811. The tense, excited, youthful atmosphere of the laboratory was crucial at this stage in Davy’s work. It would be recreated with the young Michael Faraday eight years later. The explosive appeal of potassium and sodium to young chemists is wonderfully caught in Oliver Sacks’s autobiography, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Sacks and two teenage friends first watch as ‘a frenzied molten blob’ of potassium threatens to set light to his bedroom laboratory, and then go out to throw a three-pound lump of sodium in Highgate Ponds. ‘It took fire instantly and sped around and around the surface like a demented meteor, with a huge sheet of yellow flame above it. We all exulted-this was chemistry with a vengeance!’ Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten (2001), pp.122-3.

 Beddoes was recovered in the fine biography by Dorothy Stansfield (1984), and through the work of the late, lamented Roy Porter in a number of brilliant essays, notably ‘Thomas Beddoes and Biography’ in Telling Lives in Science, ed. Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo (1996), and finally in Porter’s masterwork on the history of medicine, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (2001).

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