Humphry Davy: A Natural Theorist Influenced by Science and a Varied Social Network
by: Eric Fisher, Matt Brooks, Lindsay Stanford, Nick Beyer, Jin Woo Kim, Patrick Bohanon, and David Lansing


  • As a boy, Humphry Davy traversed the countryside of Penzance, fished in the
lakes and streams, and explored old castles and monasteries. These adventurous activities, along with his grandmother's mystical stories about the land, became the basis for many of Davy's own stories. In fact, his friends would often listen to his storytelling for hours on end, completely captivated. Elba Carrier, author of Humphry Davy and Chemical Discovery, believes that all of the "Cornish superstition," as well as his escapades through the countryside, inspired Davy to start writing poetry. However, his poetry soon turned to science, and that was the road he followed for the rest of his life (Carrier 11). Although Ca
This engraving, made by Davy in 1813, illustrates the passion he had for nature and how that impacted his life.
This engraving, made by Davy in 1813, illustrates the passion he had for nature and how that impacted his life.
rrier suggests that poetry and science were two different roads, and that Davy chose to pursue science, Davy himself may not have seen them as two different professions. Throughout his life, Davy loved nature, as shown in a letter written to Samuel Taylor Coleridge on June 8th, 1800 . He was an angler, a hunter, an explorer, a scientist, and a poet- at the core, an avid natural theorist. His life was an intertwined mesh of experiences, with each event impacting the next. As such, Davy's literary works were directly influenced not only by his fascination with nature, but also by his increasing involvement with his scientific experiments, his subsequent evolving intuition, and his vast network of friends.

The Effect of Science on Davy's Literature

  • Contrary to popular belief, Davy's first love was in writing. As a child, he was a great story teller, and captivated his
friends and family with his in-depth descriptions of past events. Before his apprenticeship as a chemist, he spent much of his time with metaphysical inquiries (Thorpe 18). These evolved into more serious, structured writings, and at the age of 17, Davy created his first published work, “Sons of Genius.” Even at this early point in his life, Davy’s poetry was clearly the work of one who was heavily interested in science. His literary work from around this time found little success. After h
Gillray's "Scientific Researches. New Discoveries in Pneumatics" (1802) illustrates Davy sharing his discovery of Nitrous Oxide with the scholars of the Pneumatic Institute
e discovered the substance in 1799, Davy focused most of his poetry on his experiences while intoxicated with nitrous oxide, most notably in "On Breathing Nitrous Oxide." He also shared the substance with many of his friends who proceeded to write poetry about how laughing gas made them feel (
Memoirs 402). In an NPR interview, Richard Holmes discusses this connection of science and poetry between Davy's nitrous oxide and his inner circle of poets. However, Davy’s own poetic work all tended to fall in the shadow of the work of his friends as well as the shadow of his world-renowned scientific accomplishments.

  • As his poetic work fell onto deaf ears, Davy became discouraged, and eventually arrived at a point where he only
wrote when he was unable to complete his scientific work, and stopped the publication of his poetry altogether (Fullmer 102). Of his lack of success in poetry, Davy noted, "Science, unlike literature, is independent of taste or caprice" (Memoirs 68). Even though he wasn’t known publicly for his poetry, the public regarded his lectures for their poetic nature: full of metaphors and abstract descriptions. This influenced Coleridge to attend an entire course of Davy’s lectures in 1802, during which he took over sixty pages of notes (Russel 17). Davy clearly still held the characteristics of an aspiring poet despite his incredible success in science and lack of success in writing. Sickness crippled Davy late in life, making him incapable of scientific experimentation or his normal recreational activities. With the free time Davy pursued his passion of writing. Davy published Salmonia, or, Days of Fly Fishing in 1828, and Consolations in Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher posthumously in 1830 (Memoirs 369).
  • A comparison between Davy's late work and his earlier works shows that Davy was taking a significantly different
attitude with regards to his writing. He was no longer writing in pure abstract as he was in Sons of Genius, rather, Davy wrote stories based on his experiences with nature while including philosophical outlooks. Late in life he seemed to view his writing as a way to cope with his sickness as well as an outlet to serve the public, since he was physically incapable of doing so with his scientific endeavors. The last sentence of the preface to Consolations in Travel displays this: “He has derived some pleasure and some consolation, when most other sources of consolation and pleasure were closed to him, from this exercise of his mind; and he ventures to hope that these hours of sickness may be not altogether unprofitable to persons in perfect health”(Consolations ix).

Timeline of Humphry Davy's scientific achievements and literary publications
Timeline of Humphry Davy's scientific achievements and literary publications

Influential People

  • Although Humphry Davy was more famous in the scientific world, many of his closer friends were not involved in
the sciences, most notably including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and Anna Beddoes. However, Davy did form relationships within his scientific circle, in particular with Gregory Watt, Michael Faraday, and Joseph Banks. Each separate relationship that Davy formed with the prominent people in his life shaped his literary works in various direct and indirect ways.
  • In 1797, Davy's mother invited the young Gregory Watt to live with them for the summer (Holmes 250). Since he
was six years older than Davy, Watt initially admired Davy’s scientific promise and saw himself as a mentor to the 19-year-old, affectionately calling Davy “my dear Alchemist” and predicting that he would lead him
A sketch of the components of the Davy Safety Lamp.
through his initiation into the greater world of science (Holmes 250). One of their earlier excursions involved exploring the mines around Penzance, even taking samples of the rocks in and around the mines. While this occurred more than fifteen years before Davy invented the Davy Lamp, it is clear that his time with Gregory Watt started his curiosity with that aspect natural science and could have contributed to his interest in developing the safety lamp.

  • Upon joining the Pneumatic Institution at Bristol in October 1798,
Davy began to form friendships with famed poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. With Davy now becoming more famous in the scientific world, Joseph Banks approached him in 1799 and offered him a place in London at the Royal Institution. Banks proved as a good acquaintance and mentor of the young Davy, as he was one of the first men to popularize the use of literary works to include and popularize Romantic science. This mixture between science and literature was close to Davy’s heart, as he had always had a passion for writing.
  • As his scientific career bloomed, Davy was still busy writing poetry. He published "The Sons of Genius" in 1799,
detailing his true admiration of the natural philosophers of the world. However, Gregory Watt did not believe that writing and publishing poetry was in Davy’s best interest, so he urged Davy to “remain in his calm laboratory and ‘be guided by the light of [his] own creation’” (Fragmentary 30). Because of his close friend’s repeated urgings, Davy chose to stop publishing his poems after 1800, instead writing them in the notebooks in his laboratory.
  • Throughout the many years of his life, one of Davy's relationships remained very separate from the others: his
relationship with Anna Beddoes. Davy met Anna Beddoes during his time at the Pneumatic Institute, but she was married to Thomas Beddoes. The beginning of his affair with Anna caused Davy to begin writing beautiful poetry to her, inspired by the love and affection that he felt for her. Davy later admitted that Anna “possessed a fancy almost poetical in the highest sense of the word,” (Fragmentary 150) and it became clear that his relationship with her provoked poetical feelings that no other relationship with a woman would do again. Even Davy’s marriage to Jane Apreece did not inspire him to write such beautiful, imaginative prose.
  • In 1801, Davy had successfully moved from the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol to the Royal Institution in London
and was preparing to lead a series of scientific lectures. Learning from his previous conversations with Coleridge, Davy learned to bring more than science to his lectures, instead having the unique gifts of “exposition and illustration,” (Chisholm 873) setting him apart from a typical scientist and revealing his more poetic side. Coleridge appreciated Davy in this respect, and often attended his lectures “to increase his stock of metaphors,” (Holmes 288) suggesting that Davy had a unique and poetic way with words.
  • Coleridge, one of Davy's closest friends, was one of the few people who truly understood the complexity of his
balance between science and literature. In one of his many letters to Davy, Coleridge praises Davy's writing, saying that he was "glad with a stagger of the heart to see [his] writing again" (Coleridge 336). In the same letter, he then continued to praise the use of imagery in Davy's writing. Coleridge even went so far as to claim that if Davy “had not been the first chemist, he would have been the first poet of his age” (Chisholm 872). While Watt certainly did not agree with Coleridge’s ideas about Davy as a poet, believing that Davy should pursue science instead of poetry, Robert Southey believed the opposite. Like Coleridge, Southey recognized that Davy “had all the elements of a poet” (Fragmentary 33) and that when he ceased publishing his poems, “a great poet had been lost” (Holmes 275). However, one differing opinion between Coleridge and Southey was that Davy could not pursue both of his loves: science and literature. Southey felt that in pursuing chemistry, Davy had abandoned poetry. Perhaps all of these opposing influences further allowed Davy to use his unique intuition to find the balance between science and poetry.

Sir Humphry Davy's network of scientific and literary friends.


  • When Sir Humphry Davy experimented he did not view himself as a chemist; likewise when he wrote he did not
view himself as a poet. In Davy’s mind he was a “chemical philosopher” (Davy, John 53). Davy defined chemical philosophy as one who takes the principles of chemistry and applies them to humanity, such as seeing “man an atom amidst atoms fixed upon a point in space; and yet modifying the laws that are around him by understanding them” (Davy, John 361). In the same manner that Davy linked the fields of chemistry and philosophy, so he linked them with his other interests. Humphry Davy’s brother John reveals that Humphry Davy’s notebooks contained “without regard to order, schemes and minutes of experiments, passing thoughts of various kinds, lines of poetry, fragments of stories and romances, metaphysical fragments and sketches of philosophical essays” (Davy, John 60). Sir Humphry Davy was a scientist, a poet, a fisherman, and a philosopher, and although he may not have devoted equal time to all of these outlets, he viewed them all as influential to his life and works.



Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1895.

Davy, Humphry. Consolations in Travel, or The Last Days of a Philosopher. London: John Murray, 1830.

Davy, Humphry. Fragmentary Remains, literary and scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy. London: John Churchill, 1858.

Davy, John. Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy. Vol. 1. London, 1836. Print.

Griswold, Rufus W. The Poets and Poetry of England, in the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845. spacePrint.


Carrier, Elba O. Humphry Davy and Chemical Discovery. New York: Franklin Watts, 1965.

"Davy, Sir Humphry." The Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature, and General spaceInformation. Ed. Hugh Chisholm. 11th ed. Vol. 7. Cambridge: University Press, 1910. 872-873.

Fullmer, JZ. "The Poetry of Sir Humphry Davy." Chymia 6 (1960): 102.

Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder. New York: Random House, Inc, 2008.

Russell, Colin Archibald. Michael Faraday: Physics and Faith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Thorpe, Sir Thomas Edward. Humphry Davy, Poet and Philosopher. London: Cassell & Company, 1896.


Humphry Davy Science

Davy, Humphry. On the Safety Lamp for Coal Miners. London: R. Hunter, 1818.
This work is based on Davy’s invention of the safety lamp which he created while working for the Society for Preventing Accidents in Coal Mines. Davy wrote “On the Safety Lamp” as an account on all of his research concerning explosions from gases in mines and how they can be prevented.

Davy, Humphry. Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated spaceNitrous Air, and Its Respiration. London: Biggs and Cottle, 1800.
This work by Davy gives an extensive account of the experiments with gases done at the Pneumatic Institute in Bristol in 1799. The chief gas of interest was nitrous oxide and its effects on humans. Davy gives personal accounts of his first hand experiences with the gas and also has a section where notable persons, such as Samuel Coleridge, recount their unique episodes with nitrous oxide.

Fullmer, June Z. Young Humphry Davy: the Making of an Experimental Chemist. Philadelphia: American Philosophical spaceSociety, 2000.
This carefully researched biography about Humphry Davy’s early life by June Fullmer focuses on Davy’s chemical endeavors. Davy was known for his discoveries including the identification of seven new elements, his work with electricity, and his experiments with nitrous oxide. The book includes illustrations and some of Davy’s personal writings.

"Humphry Davy." Chemical Heritage Foundation. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. space<>.
This source provides considerable information on the scientific accomplishments of Humphry Davy. It focuses more, however, on his specific chemical endeavors because it was published onto a site that focuses on chemistry. Some biographical information is included in with information his work with nitrous oxide, electrochemistry, and, the discovery of new elements.

Mayhew, Henry. The Wonders of Science, or Young Humphry Davy. London: David Bogue, 1855.
This biography of Humphry Davy’s life is different from normal biographies because it is written for a younger audience and portrays Davy as a young boy during all his scientific work. Mayhew provides an abundance of scientific facts and illustrations of instruments to accompany the descriptions of Davy’s discoveries and inventions.

Humphry Davy Literature

Davy, Humphry. Consolations in Travel, or The Last Days of a Philosopher. London: John Murray, 1830.
This work by Davy is his very last, intended as a summation of his thoughts and beliefs throughout his entire life. It is divided into six dialogues and mixes Davy’s philosophy and autobiography with visionary travelogues, science fiction, theories on evolution and the future of humans, and an apologia for science. Davy knew he was dying when he wrote this and intended it to be his best work.

Davy, Humphry. Salmonia: Or, Days of Fly Fishing. London: John Murray, 1828.
"Salmonia" is a literary work written by Davy himself. Davy wrote this in the later years of his life whilst he was suffering from serious illness. It was written in a conversational manner and was highly influenced by Izaak Walton's "The Compleat Angler". Davy includes many philosophical opinions and poetical reveries.

Griswold, Rufus Wilmot. The Poets and Poetry of England in Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart. 1846.
The Poets and Poetry of England in Nineteenth Century discusses numerous English poets in nineteenth century, including Humphry Davy. This book contains some of Davy’s poems, which were published by his brother, and praises his literary skills. Rufus Griswold uses some quotes from Davy’s friends, like Coleridge, to highlight Davy’s talent in literature.

Knight, David. Humphry Davy: Science and Power. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
David Knight’s biography of Humphry Davy details Davy’s development as a creative and professional scientist during the Romantic Period. He uses Davy’s poetry, notebooks, and other informal writings to help the reader better understand the mind of Davy. The book has information on his scientific endeavors and on his friendships.

Knight, David. "Humphry Davy, the Poet." Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30.4 (2005): 356-72. Academic Search spaceComplete. Web. 29 Apr. 2011.
This source talks about Davy combining Romantic styles of poetry with exact scientific language. He wrote after the age of scientists like Erasmus Darwin who could publish the latest science in verse. Davy's friends such as Coleridge, Southey, and Scott were influences on his poetry. The article also discusses what Davy's poetry reveals about his thoughts on nature.

Humphry Davy Life

Carrier, Elba O. Humphry Davy and Chemical Discovery. New York: Franklin Watts, 1965.
“Humphry Davy and Chemical Discovery” is a biography about Davy that puts emphasis on his chemical endeavors, but also provides an accurate account of his life from childhood to his last days. The book spotlights the impact of the death of Davy’s father and its influence on his scientific career along with the influence of Davy’s friends.

Davy, Humphry. Fragmentary Remains, literary and scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy. London: John Churchill, 1858.
“Fragmentary Remains” is a collection of many of Davy’s writings from his notebooks, both literary and scientific, that had not been published. His brother, John Davy, collected these works in the years after his death and published them along with a biography of his life. John hoped these personal unpublished writings would help further develop his genuine character.

Davy, John. Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy. Vol. 1. London, 1836. Print.
“Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy” is a biography about Davy written by his own brother, John Davy. It recounts Davy’s life from start to finish, but is different from other biographies because it was written by his brother. This makes it much more personal and in depth biography. John includes many of Davy’s personal writings and letters.

Hartley, Harold. Humphry Davy. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1966. Print.
Harold Hartley wrote this extensive biography of Humphry Davy to attempt at a more detailed picture of Davy’s mind and its combination of the artist and the scientist. It draws upon many of Davy’s own words and focuses greatly on his scientific work. Hartley believes that had Davy had more formal training he could have accomplished much more in his scientific life.

Paris, John A. The Life of Sir Humphry Davy. 2 vols. London, 1831. Print.
"The Life of Sir Humphry Davy" is the first biography published about Davy. It is an extensive two volume work that gives an account of Davy's entire life. It praises his many discoveries and accomplishments whilst providing in depth information into the specifics of his life, his relationships, and his works.