Lancaster researchers’ page-turner discovery on Sir Humphry Davy’s unread poetry

Sir Humphry Davy by H. W. Pickersgill after Thomas Lawrence 1831  and courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain
Sir Humphry Davy by H. W. Pickersgill after Thomas Lawrence 1831 and courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain

Researchers at Lancaster University have discovered hundreds of unpublished poems written by the nineteenth-century British chemist Sir Humphry Davy in his private notebooks.

Much of the secretly written poetry, scribed in the same notebooks he used to record his groundbreaking experiments, finds and revelations, has not been read since he wrote it and reveals some fascinating links between his poems and his scientific breakthroughs.

Over the past four years, nearly 3500 volunteers from around the world have been involved in transcribing the notebooks of one of the most famous British chemists of our times: Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1827).

Volunteers working on the Davy Notebooks Project have transcribed 11,417 pages from 129 bound and unbound notebooks, revealing how he reached some of his most important scientific discoveries.

Davy is best known for his miners’ safety lamp, which became known as the ‘Davy lamp’ and which saved the lives of countless miners.

He also isolated the largest number of chemical elements than any other scientist has – before or since – including potassium, sodium and magnesium.

The notebooks bear first-hand witness to these episodes.

Researchers say it was a thrill to transcribe the page on which Davy first notes his isolation of potassium and sodium, the discoveries that made his name.

And they know that on this day Davy ‘actually danced about the room in ecstatic delight’ when he realised what he had done.

The notebook reveals Davy’s creative process, as he starts to understand what he has achieved, and his trial of different words for these new elements, such as ‘potarchium’ before he settled on ‘potassium’.

Professor Sharon Ruston, who led the project, said: “Transcribing the notebooks also reveals just how important writing poetry was to Davy.

“The notebooks contain hundreds of poems written throughout his whole life, sometimes clearly written while in his laboratory at work on scientific experiments.

“The vast majority of these poems have never been read by anyone.”

The notebooks often feature moments, where the authentic, private feelings of a celebrated public figure is seen.

Davy was also the first person to inhale nitrous oxide, eventually a much-needed anaesthetic, but which has recently become more widely known as a recreational drug (the possession of which was made a criminal offence very recently on 8th November 2023).

The notebooks reveal the extent of Davy’s own recreational use of the gas, and belief in it as a wonder drug that could cure all. They also show his first-hand efforts to record accurately the drug’s influence upon him.

But, explains Professor Ruston, by 1825 Davy’s best work was behind him and he was severely criticised for his proposed solution to an issue raised by the British Navy.

She says: “In the following poem, written at Ullswater in the Lake District on 4thAugust 1825 we can hear a world-weary tone. Despite this, he finds a cause for optimism and resolve at the end of the poem.”

Ye lovely hills that rise in majesty

Amidst the ruddy lights of setting suns

Your tops are bright with radiance whilst <below>

The wave is dark and gloomy and the plain

Hid in the obscurest mist. Such is the life

Of Man. This vale of earth and waters dark

And gloomy: but the mountain range above

The skies, the heavens, are bright: There is a ray

Of evening which does not end in night;

A Sun of which we catch uncertain gleams

In this our mortal state, but which

For ever shines, wakening the spirit of man

To life immortal and undying glory. (RI MS HD/14/E, p. 97)

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