Airs and graces: Humphry Davy and science as performance

Alan Bleakley
Sennen, West Cornwall, United Kingdom


Cartoon with two figures: Humphry Davy to the right and perhaps Beddoes to the left
A cartoon featured in an 1807 dissertation by a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania on the “chemical and exhilarating effects of nitrous oxide gas.” The two figures are almost certainly Davy to the right and perhaps Beddoes to the left. Credit: Bulletin of the Society of Medical History of Chicago. Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0)

The setting is 1799 in Clifton, Bristol, in the southwest of England; and there is something important in the air. A “Pneumatic Institute” has been set up to investigate the potential uses of newly isolated gases such as nitrous oxide in medicine. Humphry Davy, a young, ambitious scientist from Penzance in Cornwall, had been appointed as laboratory assistant at the Institute. His primary research subject was himself. Davy found poetry in nitrous oxide or “laughing gas,” and also demonstrated a dedication to science that bordered on self-harm:

“On Boxing Day of 1799 the twenty-year-old chemist Humphry Davy . . . stripped to the waist, placed a thermometer under his armpit and stepped into a sealed box specially designed . . . for the inhalation of gases, into which he requested the . . . release (of) twenty quarts of nitrous oxide every five minutes for as long as he could retain consciousness. . . . After an hour and a quarter, by which time he estimated that his system was fully saturated, Davy stepped out of the box and proceeded to inhale a further twenty quarts of the gas from a series of oiled green silk bags.”1

Davy registered a sweet taste and gentle pressure in his head that worked its way to his chest, then the fingertips and toes. He felt a wave of pleasure running through him and then hallucinated mildly, where the world became sharper and space distorted.

“His hearing became fantastically acute . . . objects around him were teasing themselves apart into shining packets of light and energy. . . . Somehow, the whole experience was irresistibly funny . . . Objects became dazzling in their intensity, sounds were amplified into a cacophony . . . the thrillings in his limbs seemed to effervesce and overflow . . . suddenly, he ‘lost all connection with external things’, and entered a self-enveloping realm of the senses. . . . he was . . . ‘in a world of newly connected and modified ideas’, where he could theorise without limits and make new discoveries at will.”1

The celebrated Irish poet and literary scholar Paul Muldoon compares poetry to “a chemical experiment” and surely Davy, an aspiring poet as well as ambitious scientist, breathed poetry in and out. His experiments with nitrous oxide approached what contemporary performance artists would call bodily “endurance” art. More, Davy encouraged collective performances, or audience participation. In 1798 the aspiring poet Robert Southey, having left Oxford University and returned to his birthplace Bristol, wrote to his brother Tom:

“Oh Tom! Such gas has Davy discovered, the gaseous oxide! Oh Tom! I have had some; it made me laugh and tingle in every toe and finger tip. Davy has actually invented a new pleasure for which language has no name. Oh Tom! I am going for more this evening.”1

As the celebrated poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge faced up to the reality of his waning love for his wife Sara, and in the wake of recently finishing his masterpieces “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan,” there was a turn in his sensibility. During 1799 he cemented his poetic partnership with Wordsworth and formed a deep and instant friendship with Humphry Davy. Their mutual attraction was like Goethe’s “elective affinity,” a chemical bonding. Coleridge fell in love with sensual science, advertised and promoted by Davy’s wild experiments. He made a pact with Davy (who was a brilliant scientist but a second-rate poet) that he would teach him poetry if Davy taught him the rudiments of science and the practice of laboratory experiments. In fact, Davy would later help both Coleridge and Wordsworth set up their own science laboratory in the Lake District, providing equipment and materials.

When Davy arrived in Bristol in 1798 on the invitation of a physician, Thomas Beddoes, who had met Davy in Cornwall, he had intended to stay for a short while before moving on to Edinburgh to study medicine. But the work at Beddoes’ newly formed Pneumatic Institute, set up to study the “new airs,”1 so intrigued Davy that he abandoned the idea of moving on to become a surgeon and took chemistry as his bride. Scientists had become obsessed with the concept of isolating gases, as the longstanding tradition of alchemy morphed into chemistry.2 Alchemists said that a metal could increase in weight because “dry roasting” burned off an enlivening spirit in the metal called “phlogiston.” (Shakespeare would personify this through the character of Ariel in The Tempest.) The newly emerging science of chemistry rejected the fanciful idea of phlogiston to suggest that the metal increased in weight because something was added—oxygen. The metal was oxidized and this could be experimentally verified.

Davy, one of a new breed of chemists shaking off alchemy’s legacy, was just nineteen years old when he left Penzance. It was Davy himself who was permeated with phlogiston or an enlivening spirit, and not his experimental substances. While apprenticed to John Bingham Borlase, a Penzance-based surgeon, Davy showed a proclivity for chemistry and his apprenticeship focused on dispensing medicines as an apothecary (the early form of a pharmacist). While traveling in Cornwall, Beddoes met Davy and was impressed. He needed a keen and inquisitive person to develop the Pneumatic Institute, someone dedicated to researching and developing the use of gases in medicine (then known as “factitious airs,” or gases produced through experiment). Davy went on to become the most famous scientist of his age. In Bristol, surrounded by the cream of England’s poets, thinkers, writers, medics, and scientists, he studied nitrous oxide intensively, hoping to document medical uses for the gas. He noted in 1800 that the gas might be used to relieve pain during surgery, although it was not until much later, in 1844, that dentistry began to use nitrous oxide as an anesthetic, followed by the first uses in surgery in the early 1860s.

At a time when poetry and science were not separated or opposed but seen as complementary, Davy kept many notebooks where his science notes mixed with drafts of poems. His association with Robert Southey and Coleridge stimulated his creative writing, but this never matured into good verse, despite Coleridge critically reviewing Davy’s poetry. His scientific vision, however, far outstripped his peers. Later, Davy would manage transactions for Coleridge and Wordsworth with the poets’ publisher in Bristol.

In this melting pot, science, medicine, and poetry were in animated conversation. There was no debate about two distinct and separate cultures. Without the poetic imagination, how would nature and the body be first appreciated before understanding? An imagination that excised poetry would be sterile and reductive, a mere materialism. Poetry was on an equal footing with scientific medicine because they were accommodative and not assimilative. Science did not overwhelm poetry by absorbing its techniques and aims (close noticing, extraordinary description, and “seeing otherwise,” or what the Russian Formalists would later call “defamiliarization”); while poetry did not turn its back on science as purely instrumental, grounded in efficiency rather than sufficiency. A key element in the marriage of science and poetry was shared: expressive language through invention and expansion of metaphors. It was partly Davy’s scientific imagination that influenced Coleridge’s linguistic imagination, producing neologisms such as psychosomatic, soulmate, mordant, aquiform, and ideation. Coleridge, through Davy’s influence, melded poetry and science to birth a psychological framework for medicine. We fret now about combining medicine and poetry as if they are irreconcilable cultures, but actually they both share a love of thinking with metaphors.



  1. Jay, Mike. “O, Excellent Air Bag: Humphry Davy and Nitrous Oxide.” The Public Domain Review. August 6, 2014. Available at:
  2. Hillman, James. “The Imagination of Air and the Collapse of Alchemy.” 2014, Uniform Edition, works of James Hillman Vol. 5: Alchemical Psychology, 263-315.



ALAN BLEAKLEY, DPhil, educated in zoology, psychology, and psychotherapy, and working both in academia and clinically as a psychotherapist, is internationally renowned in medical education and medical humanities. He has written 20 books, including five volumes of poetry. He was past President of the Association for Medical Humanities and helped to set up the Canadian Association for Health Humanities. Alan implemented the first extensive core, compulsory, and assessed medical humanities program at a UK medical school (Peninsula) in 2002. He has been a keynote speaker at many international conferences.



Summer 2021  |  Sections  |  Science