Sir Humphry Davy correspondence, 1803-1822

Mss.B.D315.1

Date: 1803-1822 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet, 35 items

Abstract

Chiefly correspondence with Alexander John Gaspard Marcet on chemistry, with references to Sir Joseph Banks, Jean Francois Berger, Johan Jakob Berzelius, Jean-Baptiste Biot, and others; a few letters to and from John Bostock, Thomas Cooper, John Wilson Croker, Giovanni Fabbroni, and Henry Penneck.

Background note

Humphry Davy (1778–1829, APS 1810) was a British chemist and pioneer in the field of electrochemistry. He was a major figure in the reformed chemistry movement initiated by the French scientist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794, APS 1775).

Davy was the son of an impoverished Cornish woodcarver. As a youth, he was apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon with whom he pursued a regimen of self-study that included theology, philosophy, poetics, several languages, as well as, botany, chemistry, anatomy, mechanics and physics. In subsequent years, when most of his time was occupied by scientific endeavors, Davy exhibited a particular fondness for philosophical writings and poetry. In 1799 he published his first poems.

However, it was Davy's aptitude for scientific matters that soon attracted attention. One of the people who recognized his abilities was Davies Giddy (1767-1839), a Member of Parliament with scientific interests. Giddy eventually became Davy's patron. He allowed his protégé access to his library; furthermore, he persuaded Davy's master to release him from his indenture so that he could become the assistant to Thomas Beddoes, Giddy's former teacher at Oxford.

In 1798 Davy joined Beddoes's Pneumatic Institution in Bristol which was established for the purpose of investigating the medical powers of newly discovered airs and gases. There, he made the acquaintance of fellow scientists as well as individuals with literary interests, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Joseph Cottle (1770-1853), and Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). In 1797 Davy read Lavoisier's Traité élémentaire de chimie in French, a study that made a deep impression on him. Two years later he published an essay in which he refuted Lavoisier's caloric; that same year he established his reputation as a chemist with his book Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide . . . and its Respiration in which he suggested that nitrous oxide (laughing gas) be used as an anesthetic in minor surgical operations. Davy had arrived at his conclusions after a series of risky experiments with different gases on himself. He described his "emotions" after awakening from the effects of laughing gas as "enthusiastic and sublime."

Davy engaged in electrochemical experiments that led to several discoveries, including the recognition that the production of electricity was linked to a chemical reaction. He also isolated and analyzed the chemical elements potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, and barium. One of his best-known contributions to the field was his conclusion that, contrary to Lavoisier's claims, there was no material basis for acidity. In 1810 he announced that the green gas contained in sea salt was an element. He named it chlorine.

As a strong promoter of applied science, Davy also engaged in various practical projects. He researched the chemistry of tanning, promoted improvements to agricultural practices, and developed a miner's lamp that inhibited the ignition of the methane gas commonly found in mines. Furthermore, Davy was known as an effective lecturer. He made scientific topics accessible to an audience that extended beyond a small circle of fellow scientists.

Davy's accomplishments were recognized with numerous awards and honors. In 1801 he joined the faculty of the Royal Institution in London. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1803, was awarded the Copley medal in 1805, and served as the Society's president from 1820 to 1827. He was knighted in 1812 and created a baronet in 1818. He was also a founder of the Geological Society of London, the London Zoo and the Athenaeum.

Davy was married to Jane Apreece Kerr, a wealthy and well-connected widow. They did not have children. In 1829, he suffered a stroke while vacationing in Italy. He died a few days later.

Scope and content

The bulk of the collection comprises 31 letters, covering the period between c. 1803 and 1824. Twenty-three of the letters are written by Humphry Davy to the chemist Alexander John Gaspard Marcet. Other addressees of letters by Davy include Henry Penneck and John W. Croker. There are also two letters signed by Davy in his capacity as Secretary of the Royal Society of London to Marcet, and there is one letter by Lady Jane Kerr Davy to Marcet. Finally, there are three notes and one brief scientific essay by Davy. The collection includes a typed table of contents.

Most of the letters concern matters related to the natural sciences, especially chemistry. They include the exchange of papers on various topics, the loan of an instrument, and news about fellow scientists. For example, Davy asks Marcet to borrow a scientific instrument (1803), sends Marcet papers (1806, 1810), discusses chemical ideas with him (1810), and asks Marcet to forward material to the Swedish scientist Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1813). Of particular interest is a letter in which Davy tells Marcet about the subject of his next paper, the battery (1809).

One personal letter that reflects Davy's close ties to the Royal Society as well as Marcet informs Marcet that Sir Joseph Banks "did not think there could be a gentleman more worthy of the fellowship of the Society" (1808). That Marcet was highly regarded by the Royal Society is further attested by the two letters by the Royal Society and signed by Davy in his capacity as secretary. They inform Marcet that his submitted paper has been accepted for publication (1807), and that he has been elected a fellow of the Society (1808). Furthermore, in 1809, Davy wrote to Marcet that "Sir Joseph" had advanced 100£ for a botanical collection, and he also confirmed that Banks would assist Mr. Berger, who had evidently been recommended by Marcet. Davy, in turn, introduced Dr. Clarke, a young physician he had met in Rome, to Marcet (1819). Additional letters that suggest Davy's personal friendship with Marcet include information about their travel plans (1803, 1806), invitations for visits (1808), Davy's intention to visit Marcet's wife (1809), news about friends (1814), and Davy's hunting exploits (1822). On one occasion Jane Davy's requests a consultation with Marcet about her "ills" (1816).

Some insight into Davy's activities and views as a scientist and teacher can be gleaned from his letter to Henry Penneck (no year). It deals with scientific instruments Davy recently shipped, the discovery of a new English mineral, the construction of a new laboratory for experiments in "pneumatic medicine," and Davy's hope to enlist Dr. Smith and Dr. Beddoes to offer lectures. Davy also notes in this letter that "both Brown's and Darwin's Theories seem to be daily losing ground."

Three of the four letters to Croker relate primarily to Davy's experiments with copper sheathing on boats (1824). A fourth deals with the Royal Observatory as well as Davy's and Croker's plan to found a "Club" restricted to "Men of Science Art & Literature" (1823). The final letter in the collection includes candid information about a number of fellow scientists Davy had met at a meeting (possibly of the Astronomical Society), including Sir Alexander Johnston, Sir George Ducket ("a harmless bore"), and Mr. [Henry Thomas?] Colebrooke (1824).

Collection Information

Physical description

35 items.

Provenance

Received from Carnegie Institution of Washington and accessioned, 1965 (1965 1475ms).

Early American History Note

This manuscript collection falls outside the geographic scope of the Early American guide (British North America and the United States before 1840). It may be of interest to scholars interested in global history, international relations, imperialism, or the U.S. in the world.

Indexing Terms


Personal Name(s)

  • Banks, Joseph, 1743-1820
  • Berger, Jean François, 1779-1833
  • Berzelius, Jons Jakob, Friherre, 1779-1848
  • Biot, Jean-Baptiste, 1774-1862
  • Bostock, John, 1773-1846
  • Cooper, Thomas, 1759-1839
  • Croker, John Wilson, 1780-1857
  • Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829
  • Fabbroni, Giovanni Valentino Mattia, 1752-1822
  • Penneck, Henry

Subject(s)

  • Anatomy
  • Beyond Early America
  • Chemistry
  • Medicine.
  • Mineralogy.
  • Natural history.


Detailed Inventory

Papers
  
Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
Feb. 4, 18037-1/4x4-1/2

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Asks to borrow an instrument which he will return.

General physical description: 7-1/4x4-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
July 9, [1803?]7-1/4x4-1/2

A.L.S. 1p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) If he wishes anything, tomorrow is the last day for asking, for Davy leaves for Scotland the next day.

General physical description: 7-1/4x4-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
May 29, [1806]9x7-1/4

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Forwards paper which he promised.

General physical description: 9x7-1/4

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
June 12, [1807]7-1/4x4-1/2

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Concerning papers which are to be read. Does not know how his paper miscarried.

General physical description: 7-1/4x4-1/2

Royal Society (Great Britain).
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
July 11, 180715x9-1/2

Printed L.filled in in ms.S.: Humphry Davy. 1p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Thanks for paper which will be printed.

General physical description: 15x9-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
March 5, [1808]8x6-1/4

A.L.S. 1p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Will visit him on Sunday. Concerning Sir Joseph's opinion of Marcet.

General physical description: 8x6-1/4

Royal Society (Great Britain).
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard Marcet];
June 3, 180815x9

Printed L.filled in in ms.S.: Humphry Davy. 1p.and end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Notifies him of his election.

General physical description: 15x9

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
July 26, [1808]8x6-1/4

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Can send mail to France for him. Will be glad to see him any evening at home.

General physical description: 8x6-1/4

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
March 2, [1809]9x7-1/4

A.L.S. 1p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Sir Joseph will advance £100 for the botanical collection.

General physical description: 9x7-1/4

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
June 5, 18097-1/4x4-1/2

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) He may use the laboratory at any time.

General physical description: 7-1/4x4-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
July 4, 18097-1/4x4-1/4

A.L.S. 1p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Will mention Berger to Sir Joseph [Banks?] tomorrow. May visit him soon.

General physical description: 7-1/4x4-1/4

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
July 8, [1809]7-1/4x4-1/2

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Sorry he misunderstood the day to visit them. Sir Joseph will help Berger.

General physical description: 7-1/4x4-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
Sept. 1, 18097-1/4x4-1/2

A.L.S. 3p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Concerning chemistry. Friendly letter.

General physical description: 7-1/4x4-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
Jan. 1, [1810]7-1/4x4-1/2

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Forwards copies of his last paper.

General physical description: 7-1/4x4-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
Sept. 8, [1810]7-1/4x4-1/2

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Concerning a letter he is writing to Berger.

General physical description: 7-1/4x4-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
Oct. 4, 18109x7-1/4

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Concerning chemical subjects.

General physical description: 9x7-1/4

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard Marcet];
Oct. 28, 18109x7-1/2

Dublin, A.L.S. 4p.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Concerning chemistry.

General physical description: 9x7-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
Aug. 7, 18118x6-1/2

A.L.S. 1p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Concerning a business meeting.

General physical description: 8x6-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
July 11, [1813]8x6-1/2

A.L.S. 1p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Will exchange apparatus if not satisfied.

General physical description: 8x6-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet, London;
Aug. 3, 18137x9

A.L.S. 1p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Asks him to forward letter to Berzelius.

General physical description: 7x9

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
Oct., 18139-1/4x7-1/2

L. 1p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Asks him to forward publication to Berzelius.

General physical description: 9-1/4x7-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet, London;
July 29, [1814]9-3/4x7-1/4

Geneva, A.L.S. 4P.,add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) News of his travels and friends. Concerning Vesuzius. Friendly letter.

General physical description: 9-3/4x7-1/4

Note concerning the Library
July 23, 1816 

A.D.S. 1p. Withdrawing his library privilege in favor of Michael Faraday.

Davy, Jane Kerr, Lady, 1780-1855.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet];
Dec. 5, [1816]7-1/2x4-1/2

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Concerning her health. Asks for consultation with Marcet.

General physical description: 7-1/2x4-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
May 19, 18177-1/2x4-1/2

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Concerning Mr. Biot.

General physical description: 7-1/2x4-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet;
May 28, 18199-3/4x7-1/4

Florence, A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Introduces Dr. Clarke.

General physical description: 9-3/4x7-1/4

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [Alexander John Gaspard] Marcet, Inverness;
Aug. 20, [1822]8x6-1/2

A.L.S. 2p.and add.,end. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Concerning his hunting exploits.

General physical description: 8x6-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to J[ohn] W[ilson] Croker;
March 13, [1823]9-1/4x7-1/2

A.L.S. 3p. (see Davy papers) Concerning appointment to the Royal Observatory. Proposed club, based on the "Faraday" list. Refers to the Royal Society.

General physical description: 9-1/4x7-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to J[ohn] W[ilson] Croker;
Feb. 8, [1824]9x7-1/4

A.L.S. 3p. (see Davy papers.) Concerning copper sheathing of ships. Refers to a group and wishes Sotheby could be added to it.

General physical description: 9x7-1/4

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to [John Wilson Croker];
Feb., 182412-1/2x8

Portsmouth, Thursday A.L.S. 4p. (see Davy papers.) Concerning the formation of a society [Astronomical Society?] and of certain bores [Sir Alexander Johnston, et al]. Comments on electricity, Sir George Grey, etc. Fouling of ships' bottoms.

General physical description: 12-1/2x8

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to Henry Penneck, Penzance;
Jan. 269-1/2x7-1/2

Clifton, A.L.S. 4p.,add. (see Davy papers.) Chemistry of minerals. Studies anatomy and medicine. Refers to Darwin and Brown's chemistry schools of thought.

General physical description: 9-1/2x7-1/2

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Letter to J[ohn] W. Croker;
April 79x7-1/4

A.L.S. 3p. (see Sir Humphry Davy papers.) Reports on results of experiment on harbor boats with weighed copper sheathings.

General physical description: 9x7-1/4

Note concerning dinner with the President and Council of the Royal Society
May 3 

Saturday, A.N. in 3rd. person. 1p. Declines to dine with President and Council of Royal Academy.

Note to ----.
undated 

Note signed "your very affct. Brother H. Davy."

Davy, Humphry, Sir, 1778-1829.
Essay "Free Oxygen Liberated in Wells"
undated