Born in Penzance, Humphry Davy was the son of a woodcarver. Educated locally, he was apprenticed at the age of 17 to Penzance surgeon/apothecary John Borlaze. Three years later he became Superintendent at Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institute in Bristol where attempts were made to treat medical conditions with the inhalation of various gases. Here Davy continued the experiments he had begun in Penzance, risking his own life by inhaling carbon monoxide.
Davy is important in anaesthetic circles for his investigations into the chemistry of nitrous oxide, which he prepared from ammonium nitrate, and publishing his results in 1800 in the volume Researches chemical and philosophical, chiefly concerning nitrous oxide and its respiration.
In 1816, Davy invented the coal miners’ safety lamp and, as an electro-chemist, he discovered the elements potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium and barium. He presented a major treatise on agricultural chemistry, refuted the myth that all acids contained oxygen, and “discovered” Michael Faraday. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1803 and President from 1820‑27, and made a Baronet in 1818. However, from 1825 his health declined, and he later moved to Italy where he died in Geneva following a stroke.