Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsDavy was ambitious. Seen by many as a social climber, he wanted the signs of status that his humble background deprived him of. So in 1820 when Joseph Banks died, he launched a campaign to become the next President of the Royal Society, the premier scientific institution in Europe. He succeeded, though he caused tensions by pressurising his friend William Wollaston to withdraw as a candidate. As President, Davy used the prestige of the role and his connections with government to put science on an institutional basis. In 1823- 4, he helped found the Zoological Society, and gain land for its menagerie. London Zoo is still at Regent's Park today. He campaigned to make the British Museum take its natural history collections more seriously.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 secondsEventually, after Davy's death, this led to the foundation of the Natural History Museum in Kensington. He also helped gain extra staff at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to carry out its observations of the night skies. And he founded the Athenaeum Club, as a venue where men of literature and men of science could meet. It was common knowledge in Davy's later years that his marriage was unhappy. He and his wife argued often, and this made Davy irritable and high handed, and affected him as President of the Royal Society. By the mid- 1820s, articles began to appear in the press complaining of his treatment of men whose scientific papers he had turned down.

Skip to 1 minute and 39 secondsHis reputation also suffered when he opposed the election of his assistant, Faraday, as a Fellow, holding a grudge because he felt Faraday had claimed for himself a discovery stemming from Davy's own work. To the younger generation, Davy now seemed a jealous autocrat. Matters worsened when Davy proved over confident about his next big application of science. In 1824 and 25, he tried to stop the copper sheathed warships of the Royal Navy from corrosion by installing electrochemical protectors on their hulls. Successful in the lab, the technology failed because it created an unexpected side effect at sea. The ships became covered with so many weeds and molluscs, they could hardly be steered. It was a very public failure.

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 secondsDavy was criticised by radical newspapers and became defensive and bitter. Whether caused by stress or genetic inheritance, he suffered a major stroke in December 1826, aged just 48. His left arm and leg impaired, he was forced to give up his professional life. He spent much of 1827 and 1828 travelling in Europe, trying to recover his health in the mild winters of Italy and the cool summers of the Alps. His letters from this period are those of a man who knew death was near. They are reflective, and turn again to the love of nature he had expressed in his early years. This love made its way into two idiosyncratic publications.

Skip to 3 minutes and 14 secondsSalmonia appeared in 1828, a book about the pleasures of angling, full of descriptions of river scenery. Consolations in Travel was published posthumously in 1830. It features dialogues between characters about the future of science, the history of the earth, and the meaning of life. It too is full of a Romantic engagement with the spiritual through the natural world. Death came, after another stroke, in Geneva in 1829. In the following years, Davy's brother tried to secure his reputation by publishing a biography and editing his Collected Works. Today, Davy's brilliance as an experimentalist, if not as a theorist, and his seminal importance as a Romantic scientist, a voyager into nature in his own terms, are once again apparent.

Davy’s Later Life

Watch this video, in which Professor Tim Fulford tells us about Davy’s life after he became President of the Royal Society in 1820. Think about the following questions:

  • How would you characterise Davy’s later life and scientific career?

  • How important was politics to Davy’s science?

  • Can you tell anything about the role of the man of science in society at this time from the evidence of Davy’s life?

  • When he looked back on his life, what do you think Davy might have felt?

Many thanks to Dr Andrew Lacey for sourcing some of the images for this video.

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This video is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University