Sir Humphry Davy
In the spring of 1801, Humphry Davy became assistant lecturer at the Royal Institution in London, with elevation to a professorship following in 1802. Humphry Davy gave his first lecture on April 25, 1801. These continued at varying intervals until 1812. According to the Dictionary of National Biography the laboratory at the Royal Institution from 1804 to 1812 was run by his cousin, Edmund Davy (1785-1857). It also states that John Davy (1790-1868), Humphry’s younger brother and biographer, was during this time studying medicine in Edinburgh. However, John Davy’s biography records that John was at the Royal Institution from 1808 to 1811. All three Davys were resident in London at the time Jonathan Couch was at medical school. Humphry Davy’s physician and friend was William Babington (1756-1833), who worked at Guy’s from 1795 to 1811, and who had a subsidiary interest in chemistry and mineralogy. Humphry dedicated Salmonia to William Babington M.D., F.R.S., ‘in gratitude for an uninterrupted friendship of a quarter of a century’.
A close friend of Humphry Davy from the days of his youth was the scientist and politician Davies Giddy or Gilbert. Gilbert was involved in Davy’s move from Bristol to London in 1801 and the terms of his employment. Gilbert was also a friend and relation of Thomas Bond of Looe. Jonathan Couch served as a lieutenant under Captain Thomas Bond of the East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery (disbanded 1809). Bond appears as Captain AEneas Pond and Jonathan as Couch or the company doctor in Q’s novel The Mayor of Troy and the short story ‘The Looe Diehards’ There is no record of a connection between Gilbert and Jonathan Couch, except for a solitary mention in Bertha Couch’s Life(1891), where it is stated that Davies Gilbert, President of the Royal Society, proposed Jonathan as a corresponding member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall. It is difficult to believe that Thomas Bond failed to inform Gilbert of the transfer of his lieutenant to London in 1808.
Humphry Davy was not only associated with the Royal Institution but with other elite bodies in London, where the latest ideas and discoveries were discussed, and at which doctors and surgeons were frequently present. Some of these Jonathan would have had direct contact with. Chapters 3 and of John Davy’s Life relate to the time his brother was at the Royal Institution and name some of his closest associates:
- Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, and Count Rumford
- Mr Davies Gilbert, M.P. for Bodmin, who helped facilitate Humphry’s move from Bristol to London;
- Doctors Babington, Franke and Baillie, who attended Humphry during an illness in 1807
- Dr Hyde Wollaston and Dr Thomas Young, secretaries of the Royal Society
- The Bishop of Durham and Sir Thomas Bernard, fellow Anglicans
- Mr Children, a chemist
- Michael Faraday, physicist and chemist, with whom Davy visited the continent
- Dr Jenner the vaccinator
The autobiography of Benjamin Brodie informs us of a group which met of a Sunday evening in the library of Sir Joseph Banks: Sir William Herschel, Humphry Davy, Dr Thomas Young, Dr Hyde Wollaston, Charles Hatchett, Wilkins the Sanskrit scholar, Marsden, Major Rennell, Henry Cavendish, Everard Home, Barrow, Maskelyne, Blagden, John Abernethy, Carlisle and Brodie. Another group called ‘A Society for the Promotion of Animal Chemistry’, meeting at the homes of Hatchett and Home, consisted of: Humphry Davy, Dr William Babington, William Brande, William Clift, Dr Warren and Brodie.
Information about some of the above can be obtained from the Dictionary of National Biography and other sources.
John Abernethy (1764-1831)
Chapter 7 of Bettany’s Eminent Doctors is headed ‘Sir Astley Cooper and Abernethy: The Knife Verses Regime’. Abernethy was a pupil of John Hunter and surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and a Professor at the College of Surgeons.
William Babington (1756-1833) M.D.
Physician to Guy’s 1795-1811, co-founder of the Hunterian Society and the Geological Society. An old friend of Davy (Davy, 1839, p. 326), with Salmonia being dedicated to him.
Benjamin Guy Babington (1794-1866)
Son of the above, physician and linguist. Assistant to Astley Cooper.
Matthew Baillie (1761-1823) F.R.S.
Physician to St. George’s Hospital.
Sir Joseph Banks (d.1820)
President of the Royal Society prior to Davy.
Sir Charles Bell (1774-1872)
Lecturer at the Great Windmill Street School of Medicine and a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons. An authority on the nervous system (Davy, 1839, p. 389).
William Thomas Brande (1788-1866) F.R.S.
London’s leading chemist who attended Davy’s lectures.
Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie (1783-1862)
Lecturer at the Great Windmill Street School of Medicine and President of the Royal Society (see Bettany, X, ‘Sir Benjamin Brodie and Sir William Lawrence, Two Great Practical Surgeons’).
Sir Anthony Carlisle (1768-1840), F.R.S.
Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy, having been a pupil of John Hunter. Also a biologist with an interest in fish.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867), D.C.L., F.R.S.
From 1812 Davy’s assistant and friend. An experimental scientist highly regarded by Einstein.
Charles Hatchett (1765?-1847), F.R.S.
Sir William Hershel (1738-1822), F.R.S.
Astronomer and physicist.
Sir Everard Home (1756-1832)
Brother-in-law of John Hunter, a member of the Physical Society and a sergeant-surgeon.
Edward Jenner (1749-1823)
Personal friend of John Hunter, Humphry Davy, Everard Home and Henry Cline. Discoverer of vaccination. The National Vaccine Institution was established in 1808.
Thomas Poole (1765-1837)
Of Nether Stowey. Poole came to know Davy through their friendship with the poet Coleridge and their friendship remained until the end. Davy dedicated The Last Days of the Philosopher to him (Davy, 1839, letter of 1803).
William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) M.D., F.R.S.
Physiologist, chemist and physicist. On the death of Blake he stepped aside to facilitate Davy’s election as President of the Royal Society in 1820. In 1809 gave the Croonian lecture on muscles.
Pelham Warren (1776-1835) F.R.S.
Of St. George’s Hospital.
John Collins Warren of Boston, U.S.A.
Studied at the Borough Hospitals in late 1790s.
Dr Thomas Young (1773-1820)
Mathematician, physician, physicist and Egyptologist. An old friend of Davy (Davy, 1839, p. 422).
Having been born in 1778, Humphry Davy lived through the great watershed of early modern European history, the French Revolution, with his life spanning the American War of Independence before it, and the Napoleonic War that came after. He grew up in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and died shortly before the Great Reform Bill and the crowning of Queen Victoria. In the introduction to English Society in the Eighteenth Century (1990), Roy Porter defines the ‘Georgian Century’ as secular, materialistic and market driven. The concluding chapter by C.P. Courtney, entitled ‘Edmund Burke and the Enlightenment’, explores the thinking of those who saw the age as enlightened and those who derided it for its ‘atheism and materialism’ (1990, p. 496). When Jonathan Couch arrived at London in 1808, the opposing forces were still locked in combat, with the Borough Hospitals, dominated by Henry Cline and Astley Cooper, as centres of Enlightenment thought. However, there must have been those of a contrary opinion because in 1811 Henry Cline resigned his post and Astley Cooper progressively modified his opinions, particularly in the fields of politics and religion.
Jonathan Couch, even more Humphry Davy, came to London steeped in a culture which, as Q points out in the novel Ia, was ancient when the Romans arrived. According to John Davy, Humphry’s fondness for his grandmother resulted in his ‘poetical mind’ being filled from the ‘rich store of (Penwith’s) traditions and marvels’ (1839, p. 5). His grandmother had been born into Penwith society towards the close of the transfer period from Cornish Celtic to English. Some knowledge of this time has come down to us from William Gwavas of Paul, who died in 1741, and the Keeper of the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, Edward Lhuyd, who made a study of the Cornish tongue in 1700. Interestingly, Sir Jonathan Trelawney, Bishop of Exeter, a forbear of the Rev. Sir Harry Trelawney, provided Lhuyd with three language manuscripts. Davy’s great-grandparents would have been bilingual. His grandmother would not have been without some knowledge of Cornish and with a great deal of knowledge of the old literature in an Anglicanised form. Remnants of this ancient culture appear in the writings of Robert Hunt F.R.S., and Dr Thomas Quiller-Couch, and latterly in the novels and short stories of Q. Humphry Davy’s friend Davies Giddy or Gilbert certainly had a minimal knowledge of Cornish. The English renderings of place names in Thomas Bond’s History of Looe must have come from Gilbert. Humphry Davy’s awareness of this ancient culture provided him with perspective, enabling him to see his own age as but a contemporary period, freeing him from the tyranny of the present moment. The philosophical reflections appearing in his last works, Salmonia and Consolations in Travel, draw from deep roots. The same might be said of Q.
John Davy’s Life gives a precise and dated account of his brother’s mind from his earliest to his last writings. As a teenager in Penzance Humphry was attracted to ‘materialism’ (Davy, 1839, p.15), but in the ‘cold region of materialism…remained a very short time’ (ibid., p. 16), reasoning that ‘chance’ could only have produced a ‘universe of dancing atoms, without regularity’, hence the need of an organising intelligence or ‘Supreme Being’ (ibid., p. 17). Davy saw ‘materialism’ as inevitably leading to ‘Atheism’ (ibid., p. 68) and to the end of his days deplored the ‘irony and scoffs of the gross materialists and atheists’ (ibid., p. 441). Nor did he agree with ‘Deism’, seeing it as the product of ‘Anthropoganism’ (ibid., p. 225).
Where he did agree with the likes of John Hunter, John Thelwall, Henry Cline and the young Astley Cooper was in being ‘free from the undue influence of authority’ (ibid., p. 28), and in entertaining ‘scepticism in regard to theory’ (ibid., p. 69). Davy warned, however, a warning never more necessary than today!, that ‘Experimental science hardly ever affords us more than approximations to truth’ with ‘probabilities…the most we can hope for’ (ibid., p. 70).
Although Davy was a devout Anglican, any notion of the historicity of the creation stories in Genesis appears never to have crossed his mind, any more than it could have done with Hunter, Thelwall, Cline and Cooper. He suggests the world to have been based on the ‘monad’ or ‘atom’, within which lay an organising ‘principle’ implanted by a ‘present Deity’ (ibid., p. 222). From the ‘monad’ the universe evolved, with his lectures on Geology, given in 1806, outlining the various theories as to how the evolution occurred over inordinant time. By 1816 the idea of evolutionary change had attained a clearer form (ibid., p. 228). For instance, he saw ‘the divided tail of the fish (as) linked in a long succession of like objects with biped man’ (ibid., p. 217). The concept of evolution, which underlay his famous lectures at the Royal Institution from 1801 to 1812, appear to have roused no adverse comment, probably because the idea of evolution was common currency. The subtle difference between Davy’s idea of evolution and Darwin’s is that Davy explains while Darwin describes.
In the last years of his life Davy produced two philosophical works, summarising his mature reflections, Salmonia and Consolations in Travel, or Last Days of a Philosopher, the second being the more important. Shortly before his death he wrote to his brother John: ‘I bless God that I have been able to finish all my philosophical labours’ (Davy, 1839, p. 404). His scientific and philosophical labours led him to one conclusion. ‘Our real knowledge is but to be sure that we know nothing’ (ibid., p. 339) except that we must die with ‘confidence in God’ (ibid., p. 340), and in the ‘wisdom and goodness of the Creator’ (ibid., p. 385). A letter to John Davy, dated to February 23, 1829, written in Rome reveal ‘philosophical labours’ to mean ‘Consolations in Travel’ (ibid., p. 404). Shortly afterwards he heard of the death of his close friend Dr Thomas Young (ibid., p. 422), and expired on the following day, May 29, 1829.
Consolations in Travel brings many of his earlier themes to fruition. It goes from the evolution of the planet as evidenced in its ‘geological structures’ to a belief in the unity of ‘faith’ and ‘reason’. It argues for the ‘immortality’ and immateriality’ of the ‘soul’ on the basis that ‘sensibility and intelligence cannot result from any combination of any insensate unintelligent atoms’ (ibid., pp. 426–9). Finally, he claims that only a ‘Divine Eternal Mind’, not ‘chance’ or ‘accident’, can explain the ‘fixed laws’ which ‘produce perpetual life’ (ibid., p. 437). The work appears to have been written in Rome, the ‘Eternal City’, where he hoped to leave his bones (ibid., p. 404), although he actually died in Geneva.
There can be little question of the profound affinity Davy felt with Rome. It is interesting to speculate why this should have been, and what connection the ‘Eternal City’ had with the Atlantic peninsula upon which Penzance stands. Davy even felt the pull of Roman Catholicism (Davy, 1839, p. 426; pp. 430-2), although unlike Sir Harry Trelawney he never converted. This pull never affected Jonathan Couch. One possible reason could have been Davy’s closeness to the Celtic language. The remnants of the tongue he heard from his grandmother was derived from the language heard by the Romans when they invaded Britain and which persisted on the post-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia which consisted of Devon and Cornwall and had its capital in Exeter. There were also the continuing links, going back to the time of the Greeks and Phoenicians, with the Mediterranean.
No one was more aware of this that Q. In Ia, set in western Cornwall, Aunt Alse is rooted in beliefs older than the ‘Caesars’ and the ‘Cassiterides’. The Cassiterides were the tin islands of Herodotus, which Q believed included ‘Ictus’, probably St. Michael’s Mount. In 1900, Q gave a lecture to the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society called ‘Cornwall and the Romans’ which in 1901 was published. In it he explores the Phoenician, Greek and Roman legacy. In his preface to Cornwall, A Survey of 1930, Q looked back to Cornwall’s pre-Celtic history, identifying the frequency of its Iberian looking inhabitants and Iberian sounding personal names, many of which are included in his stories. D.N.A. testing has confirmed the autochthonous people of Devon and Cornwall as having migrated from north-east Spain, and south-west France at the end of the ice age.
The cultural background is only important, however, to its degree of influence upon Davy’s ideas, and by implication to Jonathan Couch’s. There are five reasons for believing it did have an influence.
Firstly it provided Davy with a yardstick of judgment, enabling him to see received opinion from a more objective viewpoint and to respond to it in an original and innovative way. Davy had the same effect on chemistry and geology as John Hunter had on medicine, overturning shibboleths and replacing theory with experiment. In fact, this is how the tin streaming and hard rock mining industries in Cornwall had developed. They had no models. That Davy made some of closest friend from within the medical profession tells its own story.
Secondly, although Davy was a friend of Romantic poets such as Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, possibly Byron, his experiences of Nature and Divinity were quite different. He did not simply feel illuminated and inspired by Nature, but a oneness with Nature and Deity. His poetical vision was intensely theistic. There can be little doubt that Q’s experiences in Bradley Woods and on Lerryn Water, as described in Memories and Opinions (1945), were similar. This fed directly into Davy’s science, inoculating him against Enlightenment rationalism, materialism and atheism.
Thirdly, the antiquity of Cornish culture, as exemplified by the cromlechs and stone-circles of the Penwith Moors, and the drowned forest beyond St. Michael’s Mount, and even the legends such as the lost land of Lyonesse, which was supposed to lie between the Lizard Point and the Scilly Isles, enabled him to envisage the vast expanses of geological and evolutionary time and even infinity itself.
Fourthly, Davy inherited from his apprenticeship to John Bingham Borlase (1753-1813) M.D., of Penzance, a tradition which was Anglican, Whig and experimental. The tradition stemmed from John of Pendeen (1666- 1776), and included his sons, the Rev. Walter Borlase, Ll.D., (1694-1776), Vice-Warden of the Stannaries, and the Rev. William Borlase, Ll.D., F.R.S., (1695-1772), a friend of the Davy family. The tradition included involvement in the fields of geology, minerology and high-pressure steam. By the time Humphry Davy was born, Penwith was experiencing the Industrial Revolution and was making a contribution to it. The tradition of metal working, however, was extremely ancient.
Fifthly, Davy’s interest in dreams, even as ‘forewarning’. According to Bertha Couch’s Life of Jonathan Couch, John and Richard Quiller were drowned aboard the Three Brothers of Polperro in 1804 because they disregarded a dream forewarning disaster (1891, p. 31). Amongst Davy’s essays of 1797-9 was one on ‘Dreaming’ (Davy, 1839, pp. 60–3) and a fictional work called ‘The Dreams of a Solitary’ (ibid., p. 64). John Davy relates one dream or semi-dream in which his brother experienced a oneness with ‘Nature and Deity’ (ibid., pp. 667) and on his deathbed a sense of ‘genial illumination’, ‘immortality’ and ‘bliss’ (ibid., p. 67). Jonathan Couch had a vision of his first wife who had died shortly before in childbirth (Couch, 1891, p. 28).
Consolations in Travel recognises the disturbances ‘superstition’ is capable of ‘awakening’, even in a rational mind (Davy, 1838, p. 65). Possibly his most revealing observation comes in the Notes of about 1818, where he says: ‘Man is not intended to pry into futurity; and the occasional miracles and gleams of prophecy seem intended to demonstrate divine interference or power’ (ibid., pp. 226–7). As with Jonathan Couch, Davy refused the notion of the universe as a closed material system, a notion which explains everything and nothing and ends as a tautology. While on his medical rounds Jonathan Couch heard of unusual phenomena, mostly capable of rational explanation, but not always. He set out these phenomena in Truth against all the World. He concluded with an observation reflecting Davy's position ‘I meddle not with it’ (1891, p. 90). In fact, the Quillers were particularly prone to such phenomena. Q includes some of this type of matter in his stories. What Q repeatedly argues against is that reality can be enclosed in a theory, rationalist or any other.
There is a pervasive notion in our society that what we know, or think we know, today supercedes what was thought yesterday. This appears particularly true in science which has formulated for itself a version of the ‘Whig Interpretation of History’. Yet many of the more profound issues appear and reappear century by century. It is clear that the thought of the Davys and the Couches has a singularity explicable only in terms of a Cornish background and which others may find unusual. The danger is in sifting out this material as inconvenient. This is what John Davy refused to do but later biographers did do. The same is true of Q. The present writer believes the temptation should be resisted.
We may never know whether Jonathan Couch attended the lectures of Humphry Davy in the theatre of the Royal Institution at 21 Albemarle Street or met any of the Davys living in London. There are similarities and differences in their thinking. In his introduction to his father’s History of Polperro (1871), Thomas Q. Couch, Q’s father, informs us of Jonathan’s mode of thought. Jonathan deplored ‘loosely observed facts’ and ‘deductions prematurely drawn’, advising scepticism and caution in regard to a ‘definite conclusion’. He spent long hours in the field and welcomed the arrival of rare specimens from local fishermen. Curiously, Jonathan was a Fellow of the Linnean Society and contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Academy of Brussels, but was never elected Fellow of the Royal Society, in spite of Humphry Davy and Davies Gilbert being presidents. Thomas also informs us of an unpublished manuscript, a Treatise on Dreams, a subject of interest he shared with Humphry Davy. Thomas agrees with Davy in seeing the ‘natural philosopher’ as being born thus, and in not being the product of mountains of absorbed facts and intense education.
Bertha Couch’s Life repeats and supplements the above. In the paper ‘Illustration of Instinct’, Jonathan sees man’s desire for ‘immortality’ and his fear of ‘annihilation’ as an extension of a life ‘instinct’. As all ‘instinct’ is related to an ‘object’, so the desire for ‘immortality’ finds its fulfilment in a ‘faith in God’ (1891, pp. 132–6). This finds parallels in the thinking of Davy.
Where Humphry Davy and Jonathan Couch also agree is in having a sceptical attitude to political, scientific and religious authority, in regarding theory as strictly provisional and in possessing a theistic, as against a materialistic and atheistic, interpretation of the universe. Both viewed the soul as the animating factor in human nature, whose presence or absence determines whether the material body is living or a corpse (as with John Hunter in his dispute with John Thelwall). Finally they rejected the notion of a universe as the product of chance, randomness and conflict. Interestingly, where the above impinged on Q he took the same positions.
This does not imply any direct connection between Humphry Davy and Jonathan Couch, as both could have come to the same conclusions independently and probably did. They came from a similar cultural background and confronted a similar range of intellectual ideas. They differed in having absorbed or otherwise the philosophical and theological influences of John Wesley and Methodists such as Dr Adam Clarke. They also differed artistically, with Davy tending to poetry and Couch to painting, a trait which came to fruition in Thomas Quiller-Couch, a Fellow of the Society of Artists. Finally Davy was a chemist with medical friends, while Couch was a doctor with scientific interests. The common influence was that of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly David Hume, with before him the Englishman John Locke.