The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science

The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science

by Jan Golinski

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What did it mean to be a scientist before the profession itself existed? Jan Golinski finds an answer in the remarkable career of Humphry Davy, the foremost chemist of his day and one of the most distinguished British men of science of the nineteenth century. Originally a country boy from a modest background, Davy was propelled by his scientific accomplishments to a knighthood and the presidency of the Royal Society. An enigmatic figure to his contemporaries, Davy has continued to elude the efforts of biographers to classify him: poet, friend to Coleridge and Wordsworth, author of travel narratives and a book on fishing, chemist and inventor of the miners’ safety lamp. What are we to make of such a man?
In The Experimental Self, Golinski argues that Davy’s life is best understood as a prolonged process of self-experimentation. He follows Davy from his youthful enthusiasm for physiological experiment through his self-fashioning as a man of science in a period when the path to a scientific career was not as well-trodden as it is today. What emerges is a portrait of Davy as a creative fashioner of his own identity through a lifelong series of experiments in selfhood.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226368849
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/11/2016
Series: Synthesis
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Jan Golinski is professor of history and humanities at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of Making Natural Knowledge and British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Eexperimental Self

Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science

By Jan Golinski

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-36884-9


1. The Enthusiast

[I] determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology. Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, my application to this study would have been irksome, and almost intolerable.

MARY SHELLEY, Frankenstein

Humphry Davy laid the foundations for his reputation as an experimenter and discoverer with his first substantial piece of scientific research. Just twenty years old, and working under the direction of Dr. Thomas Beddoes at the Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, he devoted the year 1799 to an investigation of the properties and potential medical benefits of various gases. The most extraordinary effects were caused by the substance known as nitrous oxide, later dubbed "laughing gas." As the remarkable properties of this gas became apparent, Davy and Beddoes invited friends and family members to breathe it. They shared it with a series of distinguished visitors, including Gregory Watt and Thomas Wedgwood (scions of the great Midlands manufacturing families), and the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In his published report, Davy included testimonies by these people, who described in detail what had happened to them. They talked about experiencing a feeling of pleasure and euphoria, being overcome by spontaneous laughter and involuntary movements, and having a sense of enhanced vigor or physical strength. The descriptions were widely read and frequently commented on in the press; they made Davy's name as an experimental chemist. His brother, John, was right to say later that the nitrous oxide investigation had "established [Davy's] character as a chemical philosopher."

What was that character, exactly? One of its aspects was an ability for painstaking research on chemical substances and their reactions. Davy showed himself a meticulous analytic chemist, capable of making precise quantitative measurements and reasoning accurately from them. He also devised a careful protocol for administering gases so that their physiological effects would be revealed. But public attention also focused on another feature of his character: his seemingly reckless use of himself as an experimental subject. The properties of nitrous oxide were established in large part by a lengthy process of self-experimentation. Davy breathed the gas on many occasions, sometimes in large quantities, over the course of several months. Alongside reports from others who had tried it, he recorded the gas's impact on his own senses and feelings. This showed a different aspect of his chemical persona: a willingness to use his body as an instrument of experimental investigation and to take the risks of pain or damage to his health that might follow. In these experiments, Davy displayed an inclination to make himself the subject of scientific inquiry and to endure the consequent discomfort and danger.

It was the nitrous oxide investigation that established these features of Davy's scientific persona. Although the episode has been extensively discussed by scholars, its contribution to the formation of Davy's identity has not been fully explored. His work in Bristol has been treated as a late manifestation of the program of pneumatic medicine, in which reformist medical practitioners in several provincial towns used newly discovered gases to try to treat diseases. The controversy that erupted over this incident marks the end of the era when such experimental therapies carried the hopes of progressive intellectuals such as Beddoes and his friends. My focus here will be on a slightly different issue: how the incident contributed to shaping Davy's identity as a man of science, or what his brother called his "scientific character." Davy's use of nitrous oxide demonstrated its effects on his mind as well as his body. The gas inevitably disturbed the mental equanimity of the person breathing it. Thus, the published accounts displayed Davy's sensitivity to the influence of bodily passions on his mind. He appeared both as a fearless explorer of the physical symptoms produced by the gas and as peculiarly susceptible to its mental effects — as (to quote his brother once more) "of that temperament best adapted to be excited by it, and of a tone of mind best fitted to enjoy its excitements." The image of Davy as a bold and risk-taking experimenter was thus complemented by a sense that he was also a man vulnerable to the sway of his passions, passions that he invested in his scientific work. The contemporary word for such a person — a word that was charged with multiple and strongly polarizing meanings — was "enthusiast." This complex and ambivalent character remained with Davy for the rest of his career. It was both an asset and a liability, a resource that he deployed in other episodes in his life but also a constant feature of public comment, both positive and negative.

None of these events were foreseen when Beddoes hired the young man from Cornwall in the autumn of 1798 — the first of two life-changing opportunities offered to him before his twenty-third birthday. Beddoes was on the point of opening his Medical Pneumatic Institution in the Hotwells district of Bristol. The visionary and eccentric doctor had long nurtured ambitions of providing experimental therapies to the sick and making them freely available to the poor. For Davy, the offer of a job in Bristol promised to open up prospects he could only have dreamed of during his upbringing in Penzance, in the far southwest of England. At the age of fifteen, he had witnessed the death of his father, a farmer and wood-carver. He was educated at the grammar schools in his hometown and in Truro and then apprenticed to a local apothecary. Beddoes secured his release from the apprenticeship and raised his eyes beyond his original ambitions of becoming a provincial medical practitioner. In the two and a half years he worked for Beddoes, Davy came to think of himself — and to represent himself to others — as a chemist and an aspirant natural philosopher.

The transformation was a significant one. When he arrived in Bristol, Davy was almost entirely self-taught in science. He had read his way into chemistry from the textbooks of Antoine Lavoisier and William Nicholson and performed experiments with the aid of his sisters in his childhood home. He was not entirely isolated, however, having begun to make connections with other men who shared his scientific interests. Davies Giddy, ten years his senior, then deputy lieutenant of Cornwall and living just outside Penzance, was an early patron. Giddy had studied chemistry under Beddoes while the doctor was teaching at Oxford, and the two had formed a lasting friendship. Also important in bringing Davy to Beddoes's attention was Gregory Watt, a son of the chemist and industrialist James Watt, who was one of the most important financial supporters of the Medical Pneumatic Institution. Gregory had lodged with the Davy family during a visit to Cornwall in the winter of 1797–98 and formed a close friendship with the young man, based on shared interests in chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. At the same time, Watt's friend Thomas Wedgwood, son of the pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, was also visiting the town. Davy's acquaintance with these two men linked him to the circle of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group of provincial intellectuals whose devotion to the sciences and their practical applications had placed them at the forefront of the English Enlightenment.

Beddoes was aware of these important personal connections. But he also recognized in his new employee a shared interest in speculative natural philosophy, especially as it concerned the fundamental processes of life. Davy had sent Beddoes an essay that the doctor would publish in 1799, in a locally printed collection entitled Contributions to Physical and Medical Knowledge. The essay, "On Heat, Light, and the Combinations of Light," showed that Davy was already developing an interest in the relations between "imponderable" entities and living matter. He proposed that light should be viewed as a chemical substance capable of entering into combination with others. What Lavoisier had named "oxygen," the fuel of respiration that sustained all living things, should therefore be renamed "phosoxygen," according to Davy, to acknowledge that light was one of its components. Once one understood that light played this essential role in respiration, Davy suggested, one could recognize it as the key that could unlock the chemical processes of life itself. Light, he claimed, must have an intimate connection with the basic functions of living things, and indeed with the higher mental processes. "On the existence of this principle in organic compounds," he concluded, "perception, thought, and happiness, appear to depend."

The idea was attractive to Beddoes, who was easily drawn into theoretical speculation and was fascinated by the notion that life was basically a chemical process. Davy perhaps exaggerated a little when he wrote to his mother shortly after arriving in Bristol that Beddoes had "paid me the highest compliments on my discoveries and has in fact become a convert to my Theory." But there was a genuine meeting of minds. For a while, Davy shared Beddoes's aim of using the Medical Pneumatic Institution to introduce enlightened reforms into medical practice. He too hoped to see therapies based on cutting-edge scientific research, with the benefits made available to all. But it did not take long for Davy's outlook and aspirations to diverge from his employer's. He was shortly disowning what he called his "infant chemical speculations" regarding light and ruefully admitting their lack of solid evidential foundations. As first nitrous oxide and then the phenomena of galvanism claimed his attention, he built a reputation as a resourceful and thorough experimenter, in contrast to Beddoes's more speculative and slapdash approach. He also ventured farther than the doctor was willing to go in arduous self-experimentation.

Beddoes wrote his own account of the nitrous oxide experiments, rushing into print before the end of 1799 with his Notice of Some Observations Made at the Medical Pneumatic Institution. Davy took his time, publishing his own Researches Chemical and Philosophical: Chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide the following year. As Mike Jay has written, Beddoes's book was "full of vigorously ridden hobby-horses and generous in Shandean diversions." The bulk of Davy's, by contrast, was devoted to chemical analysis of the oxides of nitrogen and studies of their effects on animals. In a volume of 580 pages, the personal narratives of breathing nitrous oxide, composed by Davy and his friends, took up fewer than one hundred. Leading up to them were quantitative studies of reactions, which allowed Davy to determine the composition of the nitrogen oxides, and a rather pitiless series of trials on animals. Doses of nitrous oxide, he reported, rapidly proved fatal to two kittens, one dog, two rabbits, two guinea pigs, and a mouse. On the other hand, a cat, another rabbit, another guinea pig, and another mouse survived shorter exposures. The implication was that "nitrous oxide acted on animals by producing some positive change in their blood, connected with new living action of the irritable and sensitive organs, and terminating in their death." Such a conclusion highlighted the risks involved to the human subjects who took the gas, though Davy reassured his readers that humans could safely respire it for much longer than animals.

Toward the end of the book, Davy devoted about forty pages to his own experiences with nitrous oxide and other gases, followed by the shorter testimonies of eighteen other individuals who had tried it. Their reactions varied. For most, the experience was a pleasurable one. In fact, some claimed the gas gave them the most intense pleasure they had ever felt. But there were others who found it unpleasant or stressful. A common theme was the subjects' propensity to uncontrolled and energetic bodily motions, or at least the feeling of unaccustomed strength or vigor. Davy tried to control for the genuine effects of the gas by giving some of the subjects plain air or oxygen to breathe beforehand. He also recorded their prejudices about it — whether they were predisposed to expect it to have an effect on them or not. Along with collecting the individual narratives, he published detailed instructions for preparing and breathing nitrous oxide. He described the various chemical reactions by which the gas could be produced and included a diagram of a gas-holder and breathing machine designed by his friend, the mineralogist and chemical manufacturer William Clayfield. Clearly the intention was to enable the results to be replicated elsewhere. By these measures, and by the various precautions and controls he introduced into the experiments, Davy was working to make a recognized contribution to scientific knowledge out of what were necessarily highly individualized experiences.

One reason why it was difficult to do so was that it was hard to describe the experience the experimenters were trying to reproduce. As Davy noted, "It is impossible to reason concerning [recollected sensations], except by means of terms which have been associated with them at the moment of their existence, and which are afterwards called up." The obstacle, as he well understood, was that nitrous oxide yielded "sensations similar to no others, and they have consequently been indescribable." Many of the other subjects in the trials also noted how hard it was to find language to describe what had happened to them. The problem particularly exercised the poets, Southey and Coleridge. Also lost for words was the future thesaurus compiler Peter Mark Roget, who as a young doctor took part in the Bristol experiments. Other participants reported that they had trouble even remembering what had happened, and they were severely challenged in trying to describe it. They recorded that their feelings were unparalleled in their prior experience and hence impossible to capture in ordinary language. One of Beddoes's patients, when asked how he felt, said, "I do not know how, but very queer." Another commented enigmatically, "I felt like the sound of a harp." As one of Davy's friends, the young industrial chemist James Thomson, concluded rather hopelessly, "It is extremely difficult to convey to others by means of words, any idea of particular sensations, of which they have had no experience."

Struggling to find a vocabulary in which they could share descriptions of their feelings, the subjects resorted to an eclectic mix of physiological and philosophical terminology. Davy set the tone here, recounting the first occasion on which he breathed nitrous oxide:

The first inspirations occasioned a slight degree of giddiness. This was succeeded by an uncommon sense of fullness of the head, accompanied with loss of distinct sensation and voluntary power, a feeling analogous to that produced in the first stage of intoxication; but unattended by pleasurable sensation.

And, then again, on the following day:

The first feelings were similar to those produced in the last experiment; but in less than half a minute, the respiration being continued, they diminished gradually, and were succeeded by a sensation analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles, attended by an highly pleasurable thrilling, particularly in the chest and the extremities. The objects around me became dazzling and my hearing more acute. Towards the last inspirations, the thrilling increased, the sense of muscular power became greater, and at last an irresistible propensity to action was indulged in; I recollect but indistinctly what followed; I know that my motions were various and violent.

What is notable here is an oscillation between third-person and first-person narration. Davy starts by describing his feelings as if they had occurred to someone else: "a slight degree of giddiness," "an highly pleasurable thrilling," and so on. But by the end of the passage, he is using the personal pronoun: "I recollect," "I know." Apparently, it was impossible to sustain the style he used at the outset, which distanced his feelings from himself. There was no way to evade the fact that he was immersed in the experience, so that it had to be described in first-person terms. It is interesting that Davy returns to the third person at the end of the passage, when he mentions the erratic and vigorous muscular actions produced by the gas. Here he implies that the bodily motions were not really his but imposed upon him irresistibly by an external agent. And indeed he records that he could not even recollect distinctly what he had done while under this influence.

In the language of Davy and the other subjects, talk of "sensations," "pleasure," and "thrilling" was paired with discussion of muscular motions and other anatomic changes. As several commentators have remarked, a particular physiological theory was under examination in the course of Davy's breathing experiments — namely, the "Brunonian" theory of the eccentric Edinburgh physician John Brown. Beddoes was particularly partial to Brunonian ideas, having published an edition of Brown's works in 1795 and expressed the hope that they could provide a rationale for pneumatic therapy. Davy also referred to Brown's notion that human health and disease could be understood in terms of the contrary influences of stimulation and depression. The first question the two men asked of nitrous oxide was whether it was a stimulant (like oxygen) or a depressant (like carbon dioxide). But Davy soon became skeptical that the effects of the gas could be understood entirely in Brunonian terms. He found that it had a stimulating effect, like alcohol, but without the debility that would be expected to set in afterwards. There was no equivalent of a hangover. In a letter of January 1799, before he began the nitrous oxide experiments, Davy claimed that Beddoes was already inclined to abandon Brown's theories. But the doctor's sympathies for Brunonian physiology remained strong enough to give rise to some degree of tension between the two men as Davy's work with nitrous oxide unfolded.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1.         The Enthusiast
2.         The Genius
3.         The Dandy
4.         The Discoverer
5.         The Philosopher
6.         The Traveler

Epilogue: A Fragmented Legacy


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