‘VALUABLE, CANDID, AND PERHAPS SATISFACTORY’: THE BIOGRAPHY OF SIR HUMPHRY DAVY, BT
DAVY, Sir Humphry, Bt – John Ayrton PARIS. The Life of Sir Humphry Davy. London: Samuel Bentley for Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831.
Quarto (272 x 210mm), pp. xv, [1 (blank)], 547, [1 (imprint)]. Engraved frontispiece by W.H. Worthington after Sir Thomas Lawrence, one folding facsimile plate by J. Swaine, wood-engraved illustrations in the text. (Bumped at lower edge of early quires, causing very short marginal tears, small marginal damp-mark on frontispiece, light offsetting onto title, short tears on facsimile and S2, the latter just touching text, short marginal chip on 2G4.) Modern blind-tooled half calf in a period style over contemporary, patterned cloth covered boards, spine gilt in compartments, gilt morocco lettering-piece in one, lettered directly with date at the foot, all edges speckled. (Cloth slightly faded and chipped, hinges skilfully reinforced, bound without publisher’s advertisements found in some copies.) A very good, clean copy with generous margins. Provenance: 19th-century pencil note on verso of title – very faint traces of institutional ownership on title and faint pencil notes on dedication.
First edition. The Life of Sir Humphry Davy is the first posthumous biography of the scientist Sir Humphrey Davy, Bt (1778-1829). As a young, self-educated scientist whose researches into Voltaic Piles were published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1801, Davy was appointed in January of that year to the post of Director of the Laboratory and Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, where his successes as a researcher and as a lecturer confirmed his reputation at a national level. Davy’s connections with the Royal Society grew over the years: in 1807 Davy was elected one of the two secretaries of the Royal Society (with the support of his patron Sir Joseph Banks, Bt); in the same year he also won the Royal Society’s Rumford Medal for his invention of the Davy Lamp – a lamp which saved the lives of numerous miners and led Banks to write Davy ‘a magnificent letter declaring that his work would place the Royal Society higher in popular opinion than all the abstruse discoveries beyond the understanding of ordinary people’ (ODNB). On 30 November 1820, following Banks’ death, he was elected the President of the Royal Society. Under Davy’s presidency, the Royal Society moved further towards the professionalism of science, but it was also marked by a violent schism between Davy and his younger protegé Michael Faraday. By the time he was re-elected President on 30 November 1826 Davy’s health was declining, and in December, aged 48, he suffered a stroke. Davy spent much of the following eighteen months abroad to convalesce, but suffered a second stroke in Italy on 20 February 1829, and therefore decided to return to England, via Geneva, where he died peacefully in his sleep on 29 May 1829.
The Life of Sir Humphry Davy was written by the physician and author John Ayrton Paris (c. 1756-1856). The author of a number of successful books on medicine and science, Paris was commissioned to write a biography of Davy for the sum of 1,000 guineas (cf. Bibliotheca cornubiensis II, p. 422). It appears to have been first issued in this one-volume, quarto first edition published in January 1831 by Colburn and Bentley at the price of 3 guineas, followed shortly afterwards by the cheaper, two-volume, octavo edition, which was sold at 28s (cf. Bibliotheca cornubiensis I, p. 110). The work is prefaced by a frontispiece, which reproduces the portrait of Davy by Sir Thomas Lawrence at the Royal Society, with a facsimile of Davy’s signature beneath, and concludes with a bibliography of Davy’s writings (pp. 540-543).
The reception of Paris’ biography was generally positive; for example, apart from a few caveats, The Athenaeum was generally laudatory in its review, commenting that, ‘Dr. Paris has written the memoirs of his friend with an impartiality rarely found in contemporary biography […]. [T]he book […] is valuable, candid, and perhaps satisfactory’ (no. 168 (15 January 1831), p. 39).
Bibliotheca cornubiensis I, p. 110; Bolton, p. 192; Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library I, p. 337; cf. Osler 7687 (two-volume, octavo ed.).
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