3 September 2015 14:35

The life and letters of a British scientist – one of the foremost of his day – will be used as a lens to examine the relationship between science, society and culture then and now.

A research council Leadership Fellowship, awarded this week by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), will also enable Professor Sharon Ruston (English and Creative Writing) and her team to edit two volumes of ‘The Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy’.

The project will also include the production of a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) and three public events to teach a global community about Davy, his life, his scientific work, and his poetry.

It will examine how Davy’s letters change our understanding of early nineteenth-century culture, and, more generally, our understanding of the connections and interactions that are possible between literature and science.

Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) has been described as the foremost British ‘scientist’ of his day and he remains one of the best known and most discussed. He worked at the Royal Institution, fittingly a partner in this project, for a decade. 

Between October and December 1815 — exactly 200 years before the start date of the Fellowship — Davy invented a form of miners’ safety lamp that became known as the Davy Lamp.

Its successful trial in January 1816 led to it being adopted across Britain and Europe with immediate effect. The number of miners’ deaths significantly decreased and the safe extraction of coal vastly improved the country’s industrial capacity.

Davy was also the first to use the newly invented electric battery to isolate nine chemical elements, the largest number attributed to any individual.

“Despite these important achievements his letters are almost entirely unpublished,” says Professor Ruston. “To address this gap in scholarship, Oxford University Press will publish a four-volume print edition of the letters in 2018, edited jointly by myself and Professor Tim Fulford (De Montfort University).

“Since 2008, we have collected and transcribed 1152 surviving letters written by Davy, of which only 250 have been published elsewhere in extract or expurgated form. The AHRC Leadership Fellowship of £238,812 will enable me, with the help of a Research Assistant, to produce the final two volumes of the edition. You can read and search these letters online currently at http://www.davy-letters.org.uk/.

“The Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy will provide a significant resource for Romantic-era literary scholars, proving the centrality of Davy to Romantic-period culture.”