Humphry Davy (1778-1829)

Biography of Humphry Davy

  • Humphry Davy

    Detail of a portrait of Humphry Davy by H. W. Pickersgill after Thomas Lawrence, c. 1830s

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Humphry Davy

    Detail of a painting of Humphry Davy by Archer James Oliver c. 1810.

    Credit: Royal Institution


Ri positions

  • Director of the Laboratory, 1801-1825
  • Professor of Chemistry, 1802-1812
  • Honorary Professor, 1813-1823

Born in Penzance, he attended Truro Grammar School before returning to Penzance as an apothecary's apprentice. In 1798 he moved to Bristol to work at Thomas Beddoes's Pneumatic Institution where he discovered the physiological effects of nitrous oxide (laughing) gas. In Bristol he met and became friends with Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge at whose instigation he edited the 2nd edition of William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads.

In 1802 he became professor of chemistry at the Ri. He went on to establish the Ri's reputation for excellent lectures, and also for scientific research. He used the new electric battery to isolate sodium and potassium and formulated a coherent theory of electro-chemical action while he was at the Ri. He left in 1812 following marriage to Jane Apreece, a wealthy heiress.

He toured the Continent between 1813 and 1815 (taking Michael Faraday along as his assistant) and on his return to England invented a form of the miners' safety lamp. In the 1820s he advised the Admiralty on protection of ship's bottoms and on improving optical glass. He was made President of the Royal Society, but was not a success and after resigning due to ill health he again toured the Continent, dying in Geneva.


The Davy Letters project website is now live. This is the first stage in the publication of the first ever edition of the Collected Letters of Humphry Davy and his Circle, edited by a team of Davy scholars.

Papers at the Ri

Papers include the bond of indenture of apprenticeship, 1795 with its release, 1798; lecture notes; honours and diplomas, laboratory and scientific notebooks; correspondence; personal notebooks; poetry and sketches; papers relating to his published works; papers collected by Michael Faraday and John Davy; a ledger of Edmund Davy, his cousin and appraisal for the miners safety lamp of 1815.

Catalogue information is currently available on the National Archives A2A (Access to Archives) service and a summary of the collection can be found on the AIM25 website.

Related content