Sir Humphry Davy

Scientist and poet

Humphry Davy (1778-1829), who was from Cornwall in the far west of England and studied at Cambridge, was both a poet and a scientist:

  • as a very young man he helped to correct the proofs of the ground-breaking volume Lyrical Ballads (1798) by Wordsworth and Coleridge
  • he studied natural sciences and became interested in various phenomena associated with galvanic action, a subject on which he lectured at the Royal Institution in London, where he became Professor of Chemistry in 1802
  • he worked on chemical elements, such as potassium, sodium and chlorine, and also invented the miner's safety lamp.

Use by Mary Shelley

Professor Waldman's ideas about chemistry owe a great deal to Davy's work, with which Mary Shelley was familiar. It is probable that in October 1816 she read Davy's celebrated introductory lecture to a course he gave at the Royal Institution in 1802, and which was published that year as A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry. Percy Shelley owned a copy of Davy's textbook, Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812) and it is probable that he and Mary studied it together, again in the autumn of 1816, at the time when she was working on Frankenstein.

Davy was an advocate of the importance of chemistry, which plays a key part in manufacture, agriculture and other dimensions of life. More on Davy and the use of science?

Davy was conscious of the negative potential in the increase of human knowledge. Although he believed that science had an enormous contribution to make to the welfare of humanity and to the peace and prosperity of society, he also thought:
  • it was important for scientists to maintain their respect and reverence in their approach to nature
  • scientific discovery was very exciting for the individual scientist, which made it all the more important to use knowledge carefully and responsibly, not for personal glorification but for its wider benefits.

Victor Frankenstein and the application of science

Victor, however, falls short as a scientist in a number of ways:

  • he fails to exercise any of the restraints concerning respect, reverence or responsibility for creation
  • he fails to consider anything or anyone that might distract from his own obsessive pursuit of knowledge
  • his overweening pride and ambition lead him to behave in ways that are aggressive, presumptuous, disrespectful to nature and highly dangerous. As he creates the monster, he is so absorbed in the exercise of power that he gives no thought to the moral dimensions of his work or to its possible consequences for himself, for the being he has created and for society as a whole.
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