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SIR HUMPHRY DAVY.
HUMPHRY Davy, one of the most laborious and successful explorers of the science of chemistry in modern times, was born at Penzance, in Cornwall, England, on the 17th of December, 1778. His parents belonged to the humbler order of society, but were nevertheless respectable. After receiving the elements of education at Penzance, and being for some time at the grammar school of Truro, he was bound apprentice, in 1795, to a surgeon-apothecary in his native town. When thus entering upon a profession, he no doubt foresaw that his success in life would depend on his own exertions. At this time, his father having died, his mother found herself under the necessity of becoming a milliner in Penzance, by which she contrived to glean an honorable subsistence for her family.
Little is known of Davy's early character, beyond the circumstance of his facility in gathering and treasuring up the information which books afforded him, and his predilection for poetry. While acting in the capacity of apothecary's apprentice, he devoted his leisure hours to examinations into the productions of nature, as well as into chemical science. His instruments were supplied by his own ingenuity. In the contrivance of apparatus and invention of expedients, he evinced great proficiency; and in after years, it is allowed by scientific men, that in this respect, as well as in others, he stood unrivalled.
In October, 1799, Davy quitted Penzance for Bristol, to superintend a pneumatic medical institution, having then scarcely attained his twentieth year. Removed from a small country town to a populous city offering scope for the exercise of his genius, Davy now felt as if in a new world. He associated with men engaged in those philosophical pursuits in which he found so much delight; was provided with suitable apparatus, and speedily entered upon that brilliant career of discovery which has rendered his name so illustrious. It was not his intention to abandon the study or practice of medicine; but after a short time he found it necessary to do so, and direct his whole attention to chemistry.
It was at this period of his life that Davy pursued a series of hazardous experiments upon nitrous oxide -a gas which, if incautiously used, is destructive of animal life, and when taken into the lungs produces highly increased muscular action, and a propensity to indulge in laughter. He not only inhaled this dangerous fluid, but also carburetted hydrogen and carbonic acid gas, with a view to develop facts illustrative of their nature. The fame which followed the publication of these investigations, extended the reputation of the young chemist. At this period the establishment of the Royal Institution in London took place, and Davy was invited to become assistant professor in chemistry, and director of the laboratory. He accepted the offer, and, in the beginning of the year 1801, entered upon the duties of his situation.
Only a few weeks had elapsed in this new sphere of exertion, when he was appointed by the managers lecturer in chemistry, instead of assistant. His first lecture was delivered in 1802, and from this period we may date the commencement of his splendid career. He at once succeeded in making a strong impression upon the public mind, and by a series of brilliant discoveries was enabled to maintain it till the hour of his death. His discourses were admirably adapted to fascinate his audience, which was composed, not of philosophers alone, but the gay and fashionable of the city, a considerable proportion of whom were ladies in the higher walks of life. His experiments, particularly with the voltaic battery--an instrument with which he was destined to work such miracles--riveted universal attention ; philosophers admired and applauded, and the softer sex were involved in the most agreeable terrors.
His style was highly florid. It largely partook of that poetical inspiration, of which, as has been already stated, he so early evinced the possession. Coleridge, the poet, was a constant attendant on the lectures, and has himself declared it was to increase the stock of his metaphors. So great was Davy's popularity, that even duchesses vied with each other in doing homage to his genius; compliments, invitations, and presents, were showered upon him from all quarters, and no entertainment was considered complete without the presence of the chemical lecturer. This adulation had its usual effect upon the mind of Davy, and impaired that simplicity of character which he had before displayed.