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The Age of Science

Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829)

Humphrey Davy was born on December 17, 1778 in Penzance, Cornwall. He was educated at Truro Grammar School. His father died in 1794, and Davy, in an effort to help support his family, became an apprentice to a surgeon-apothecary, J. Bingham Borlase in order to try and support his family.

In 1798, at the age of 19 he went to Bristol to study chemistry and was taken on by Thomas Beddoes at his Medical Pneumatic Institution. The Institution was founded at Clifton to enquire into the therapeutic properties of gases. In 1798, Humphrey Davy started to carry out experiments with nitrous oxide; he called it
“Laughing Gas”.

This title was unscientific and in all probability slowed down research into its analgesic properties. He made a famous quote that set the tone for the future medical scientists that states,

“Nitrous oxide appears capable of destroying physical pain. It could be used with the advantage during surgical procedures in which no great effusion of blood takes place”.

In the same letter he said:

"It occurred to me, that supposing nitrous oxide to be a stimulant of the common class, it would follow that the debility produced in consequence of excessive stimulation by a known agent, ought to be increased after excitement from nitrous oxide. To ascertain whether this was the case, I made, on 23 December, at four p.m. the following experiment. I drank a bottle of wine in large draughts in less than eight minutes. Whilst I was drinking, I perceived a sense of fullness in the head, and throbbing of the arteries, not un analogous to that produced in the first stage of nitrous oxide excitement. After I had finished the bottle, this fullness increased, the objects around me became dazzling, the power of distinct articulation was lost, and I was unable to walk steadily. At this moment the sensations were rather pleasurable than otherwise, the sense of fullness in the head soon however increased so as to become painful, and in lessthan an hour I sunk into a state of insensibility. In this situation I must have remained for two hours or two hours and a half. I was awakened by a head-ache and painful nausea. The nausea continued even after the contents of the stomach had been ejected.

The pain in the head every minute increased; I was neither feverish nor thirsty; my bodily and mental debility were excessive, and the pulse feeble and quick. In this state I breathed for near a minute and a half five quarts of gas, which was brought to me by the operator for nitrous oxide; but as it produced no sensations whatever, and apparently rather increased my debility, I am almost convinced that it was from some accident, either common air, or very impure nitrous oxide” 146

In 1799 he published the details of his research in his book 'Researches, Chemical and Philosophical' which led to him being appointed a lecturer at the Royal Institution.

Much of Davy's subsequent research involved making new compounds of chlorine with nitrogen, phosphorus, and oxygen.
In 1812 he was knighted, gave a farewell lecture to the Royal Institution, and married a wealthy widow.
He died May 29th, 1829 at the age of 51 following a prolonged illness considered to be brought on by the inhalation of many gases over his lifetime. Sir Humphry Davy's contribution to science is incalculable. He discovered many principles of chemistry which still hold true today.
It is seems strange that it took nearly 50 years for people such as Horace Wells to catch on to his words.


Quote 58

“I have learned more from my mistakes than from my successes.” 148



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