Dec 172016


Today is the birthday (1778) of Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet PRS MRIA FGS, a Cornish chemist and inventor whom I remember chiefly as the inventor of the Davy safety lamp for miners, but who had an illustrious career as a chemist.  He isolated a series of elements for the first time – potassium, sodium,  calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron, as well as discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He also studied the forces involved in these separations, inventing the new field of electrochemistry. Besides the Davy Lamp he invented a very early form of the incandescent light bulb.

Davy was born in Penzance in Cornwall but his family moved to Varfell, near Ludgvan, when he was 9, and in term-time Davy boarded with John Tonkin, his mother’s godfather. After Davy’s father died in 1794, Tonkin apprenticed him to John Bingham Borlase, a surgeon with a practice in Penzance. In the apothecary’s dispensary, Davy became a chemist, and he conducted his earliest chemical experiments in a garret in Tonkin’s house. Davy’s friends said: “This boy Humphry is incorrigible. He will blow us all into the air.” His elder sister complained of the ravages made on her dresses by corrosive substances.

His Quaker friend and mentor Robert Dunkin remarked: ‘I tell thee what, Humphry, thou art the most quibbling hand at a dispute I ever met with in my life.’ One winter day he took Davy to a river to show him that rubbing two plates of ice together developed sufficient energy by motion, to melt them, and that after the motion was suspended, the pieces were united by regelation. Later, as professor at the Royal Institution, Davy repeated many of the ingenious experiments he learned from Dunkin.

Through a mutual friend he met Dr Edwards who was a lecturer in chemistry at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts). He permitted Davy to use his laboratory and possibly directed his attention to the floodgates of the port of Hayle, which were rapidly decaying as a result of the contact between copper and iron under the influence of seawater. Galvanic corrosion was not understood at that time, but the phenomenon prepared Davy for subsequent experiments on ship’s copper sheathing.

Thomas Beddoes and John Hailstone were engaged in a geological controversy on the rival merits of the Plutonian and Neptunist hypotheses. They traveled together to examine the Cornish coast for evidence of their competing theories and made Davy’s acquaintance. Beddoes, who had established at Bristol a ‘Pneumatic Institution,’ needed an assistant to superintend the laboratory. After prolonged negotiations, mainly by Gilbert, Mrs Davy and Borlase consented to Davy’s departure, but Tonkin wished him to remain in his native town as a surgeon, and altered his will when he found that Davy insisted on going to Dr Beddoes.On 2 October 1798, Davy joined the Pneumatic Institution at Bristol. It had been established to investigate the medical powers of factitious airs and gases, and Davy was to superintend the various experiments. The arrangement agreed between Dr Beddoes and Davy was liberal and enabled Davy to give up all claims on his paternal property in favor of his mother. He did not intend to abandon the medical profession and was determined to study and graduate at Edinburgh but he soon began to fill parts of the institution with voltaic batteries. While living in Bristol, Davy met the Earl of Durham, who was a resident in the institution for his health and became close friends with Gregory Watt, James Watt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, all of whom became regular users of nitrous oxide, to which Davy became addicted.


James Watt built a portable gas chamber to facilitate Davy’s experiments with the inhalation of nitrous oxide. At one point the gas was combined with wine to judge its efficacy as a cure for hangover (his laboratory notebook indicated success). The gas was popular among Davy’s friends and acquaintances, and he noted that it might be useful for performing surgical operations. However, anesthetics were not regularly used in medicine or dentistry until decades after Davy’s death. Davy conducted numerous experiments on himself with nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and with respiration at considerable risk.

In 1799, Count Rumford had proposed the establishment in London of an ‘Institution for Diffusing Knowledge’ that is, the Royal Institution. In 1801 Davy left Bristol to take up a new post at the Royal Institution as assistant lecturer in chemistry, director of the chemical laboratory, and assistant editor of the journals of the institution.  On 25 April 1801, Davy gave his first lecture on the relatively new subject of ‘Galvanism’. The first lecture garnered rave reviews, and by the June lecture Davy wrote to John King that his last lecture had attendance of nearly 500 people. “There was Respiration, Nitrous Oxide, and unbounded Applause. Amen!”


Davy’s lectures also included spectacular and sometimes dangerous chemical demonstrations for his audience, a generous helping of references to divine creation, and genuine scientific information. Not only a popular lecturer, the young and handsome Davy acquired a huge female following around London, and nearly half of the attendees pictured in Gillray’s cartoon of the Royal Institution are female. When Davy’s lecture series on Galvanism ended, he progressed to a new series on Agricultural Chemistry, and his popularity continued to skyrocket. By June 1802, after just over a year at the Institution and at the age of 23, Davy was nominated to full lecturer.

In 1802 Davy had what was then the most powerful electrical battery in the world at the Royal Institution. With it, Davy created the first incandescent light by passing electric current through a thin strip of platinum, chosen because the metal had an extremely high melting point. It was neither sufficiently bright nor long lasting enough to be of practical use, but demonstrated the principle. By 1806 he was able to demonstrate a much more powerful form of electric lighting to the Royal Society in London. It was an early form of arc light which produced its illumination from an electric arc created between two charcoal rods.


Davy was a pioneer in the field of electrolysis using the voltaic pile to split common compounds and thus prepare many new elements. He went on to electrolyze molten salts and discovered several new metals, including sodium and potassium. Davy discovered potassium in 1807, deriving it from caustic potash (KOH). Before the 19th century, no distinction had been made between potassium and sodium. Potassium was the first metal that was isolated by electrolysis. Davy isolated sodium in the same year by passing an electric current through molten sodium hydroxide. Davy discovered calcium in 1808 by electrolyzing a mixture of lime and mercuric oxide. He worked with electrolysis throughout his life and was first to isolate magnesium, boron, and barium.

Chlorine was discovered in 1774 by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who called it “dephlogisticated marine acid” and mistakenly thought it contained oxygen. Davy showed that the acid of Scheele’s substance, called at the time oxymuriatic acid, contained no oxygen. This discovery overturned Lavoisier’s definition of acids as compounds of oxygen. In 1810, chlorine was given its current name by Humphry Davy, who insisted that chlorine was in fact an element.

Davy later damaged his eyesight in a laboratory accident with nitrogen trichloride. Pierre Louis Dulong first prepared this compound in 1812, and lost two fingers and an eye in two separate explosions with it. Davy’s own accident induced him to hire Michael Faraday as a co-worker.

In 1812, Davy was knighted, gave a farewell lecture to the Royal Institution, and married a wealthy widow, Jane Apreece. (While Davy was generally acknowledged as being faithful to his wife, their relationship was stormy, and in later years he travelled to continental Europe alone.) In October 1813, he and his wife, accompanied by Michael Faraday as his scientific assistant (and valet), travelled to France to collect a medal that Napoleon Bonaparte had awarded Davy for his electro-chemical work. While in Paris, Davy was asked by Gay-Lussac to investigate a mysterious substance isolated by Bernard Courtois. Davy showed it to be an element, which is now called iodine. The party left Paris in December 1813, traveling south to Italy. They stayed a while in Florence, where, in a series of experiments conducted with Faraday’s assistance, Davy succeeded in using the sun’s rays to ignite diamond, proving it is composed of pure carbon.

Davy’s party continued to Rome, and also visited Naples and Mount Vesuvius. By June 1814, they were in Milan, where they met Alessandro Volta, and then continued north to Geneva. They returned to Italy via Munich and Innsbruck, and when their plans to travel to Greece and Istanbul were abandoned after Napoleon’s escape from Elba, they returned to England.


After his return to England in 1815, Davy experimented with lamps for use in coal mines. There had been many mining explosions caused by firedamp or methane often ignited by open flames of the lamps then used by miners. In particular the Felling mine disaster in 1812 near Newcastle caused great loss of life, and action was needed to improve underground lighting and especially the lamps used by miners. Davy conceived of using an iron gauze to enclose a lamp’s flame, and so prevent the methane burning inside the lamp from passing out to the general atmosphere. Although the idea of the safety lamp had already been demonstrated by William Reid Clanny and by the then unknown (but later very famous) engineer George Stephenson, Davy’s use of wire gauze to prevent the spread of flame was used by many other inventors in their later designs. George Stephenson’s lamp was very popular in the north-east coalfields, and used the same principle of preventing the flame reaching the general atmosphere, but by different means. Unfortunately, although the new design of gauze lamp initially did seem to offer protection, it gave much less light, and quickly deteriorated in the wet conditions of most pits. Rusting of the gauze quickly made the lamp unsafe, and the number of deaths from firedamp explosions rose yet further.

There was some discussion as to whether Davy had discovered the principles behind his lamp without the help of the work of Smithson Tennant, but it was generally agreed that the work of both men had been independent. Davy refused to patent the lamp, and its invention led to his being awarded the Rumford medal in 1816.

In January 1819, Davy was awarded a baronetcy. Although Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton had already been knighted, this was, at the time, the first such honor ever conferred on a man of science in Britain. A year later he became President of the Royal Society. Davy’s laboratory assistant, Michael Faraday, went on to enhance Davy’s work and would become the more famous and influential scientist. Davy is supposed to have even claimed Faraday as his greatest discovery. Davy later accused Faraday of plagiarism, however, causing Faraday (the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry) to cease all research in electromagnetism until his mentor’s death.


Davy spent the last months of his life writing Consolations in Travel, an immensely popular, somewhat freeform compendium of poetry, thoughts on science and philosophy. Published posthumously, the work became a staple of both scientific and family libraries for several decades afterward. Davy spent the winter in Rome, hunting in the Campagna on his 50th birthday. But on 20 February 1829 he had a stroke. After spending many months attempting to recuperate, Davy died in a hotel room in Geneva on 29 May 1829.

He had wished to be buried where he died, but had also wanted the burial delayed in case he was only comatose. He refused to allow a post-mortem for similar reasons. But the laws of Geneva did not allow any delay and he was given a public funeral on the following Monday, in the Plainpalais Cemetery, outside the city walls. Jane organized a memorial tablet for him, in Westminster Abbey shortly afterwards.


In the spirit of Davy’s experiments the Royal Institution’s website gives a recipe for microwave cupcakes (or mug cakes) and suggests ways to experiment, Here’s the basic recipe slightly edited.  The point is to make the original first, and then play around with the ingredients and see what happens. RI asks the following questions:

What do you think will happen if we don’t include the egg?

How could we find out?

What do you think will happen if we don’t include the oil?

What do you think will happen if we don’t include the baking


Microwave Mug Cake


4 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp caster sugar
¼ tsp baking powder
1 small/medium egg
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp water


Mix all the dry ingredients together in a mug

Break the egg into the mug and add the oil and water

Stir vigorously with a fork

Zap the resulting mixture in your microwave at full power for 2 minutes


Oct 162015


On this date in 1846 John Collins Warren removed a tumor from the neck of a local printer, Edward Gilbert Abbott using ether as an anesthetic. Upon completion of the procedure, Warren reportedly quipped, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.” This was not the first time that ether was used as an anesthetic, nor the first attempt at surgical anesthesia by any means. But this surgery’s success became worldwide news and so 16 October was chosen as World Anesthesia Day.

Attempts at producing a state of general anesthesia can be traced throughout recorded history in the writings of the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, and Chinese. During the Middle Ages, which correspond roughly to what is sometimes referred to as the Islamic Golden Age, scientists and other scholars made significant advances in science and medicine in the Muslim world and Eastern world, while their European counterparts also made important advances.

The first attempts at general anesthesia were probably herbal remedies administered in prehistory. Alcohol is the oldest known sedative; it was used in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. The Sumerians are said to have cultivated and harvested the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) in lower Mesopotamia as early as 3400 BCE. The most ancient testimony concerning the opium poppy found to date was inscribed in cuneiform script on a small white clay tablet at the end of the third millennium BCE. This tablet was discovered in 1954 during excavations at Nippur, and is currently kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It is considered to be the most ancient pharmacopoeia in existence.

The ancient Egyptians had some surgical instruments, as well as crude analgesics and sedatives, including possibly an extract prepared from the mandrake fruit. The use of preparations similar to opium in surgery is recorded in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical papyrus written in the Eighteenth dynasty. However, it is debatable whether opium itself was known in ancient Egypt. The Greek gods Hypnos (Sleep), Nyx (Night), and Thanatos (Death) were often depicted holding poppies.

Prior to the introduction of opium to ancient India and China, these civilizations pioneered the use of cannabis incense and aconitum. c. 400 BCE, the Sushruta Samhita (a text from the Indian subcontinent on ayurvedic medicine and surgery) advocates the use of wine with incense of cannabis for anesthesia. By the 8th century CE, Arab traders had brought opium to India and China. In Western antiquity, anaesthetics were described by Dioscorides (De Materia Medica), Galen, Hippocrates, and Theophrastus (Historia Plantarum)

Bian Que ( 扁鹊) c. 300 BCE, was a legendary Chinese internist and surgeon who reportedly used general anesthesia for surgical procedures. It is recorded in the Book of Master Han Fei (c. 250 BCE), the Records of the Grand Historian (c. 100 BCE), and the Book of Master Lie (c. 300 CE) that Bian Que gave two men, named “Lu” and “Chao”, a toxic drink which rendered them unconscious for three days, during which time he performed gastric surgery on them.


Hua Tuo (145-220 CE) was a Chinese surgeon of the 2nd century CE. According to the Records of Three Kingdoms (c. 270 CE) and the Book of the Later Han (c. 430 CE), Hua Tuo performed surgery under general anesthesia using a formula he had developed by mixing wine with a mixture of herbal extracts he called mafeisan (麻沸散). Hua Tuo reportedly used mafeisan to perform even major operations such as resection of gangrenous intestines. Before the surgery, he administered an oral anesthetic potion, probably dissolved in wine, in order to induce a state of unconsciousness and partial neuromuscular blockade. The exact composition of mafeisan, similar to all of Hua Tuo’s clinical knowledge, was lost when he burned his manuscripts, just before his death. The composition of the anesthetic powder was not mentioned in either the Records of Three Kingdoms or the Book of the Later Han. Because Confucian teachings regarded the body as sacred and surgery was considered a form of body mutilation, surgery was strongly discouraged in ancient China. Because of this, despite Hua Tuo’s reported success with general anesthesia, the practice of surgery in ancient China ended with his death. The name mafeisan combines ma (麻, meaning “cannabis, hemp, numbed or tingling”), fei (沸, meaning “boiling or bubbling”), and san (散, meaning “to break up or scatter”, or “medicine in powder form”). Therefore, the word mafeisan probably means something like “cannabis boil powder”.

Arabic and Persian physicians may have been among the first to utilize oral as well as inhaled anesthetics. Ferdowsi (940–1020) was a Persian poet who lived in the Abbasid Caliphate. In Shahnameh, his national epic poem, Ferdowsi described a caesarean section performed on Rudaba. A special wine prepared by a Zoroastrian priest was used as an anesthetic for this operation.[22] Although Shahnameh is fictional, the passage nevertheless supports the idea that general anesthesia had at least been described in ancient Persia, even if not successfully implemented.

In 1000, Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (936-1013), an Arab physician who lived in Al-Andalus, published the 30-volume Kitab al-Tasrif, the first illustrated work on surgery. In this book, he wrote about the use of general anesthesia for surgery. c. 1020, Ibn Sīnā (980–1037) described the use of inhaled anesthesia in The Canon of Medicine. The Canon described the “soporific sponge”, a sponge imbued with aromatics and narcotics, which was to be placed under a patient’s nose during surgical operations. Ibn Zuhr (1091–1161) was another Arab physician from Al-Andalus. In his 12th century medical textbook Al-Taisir, Ibn Zuhr describes the use of general anesthesia.These three physicians were among many who performed operations under inhaled anesthesia with the use of narcotic-soaked sponges.

From roughly 1200 – 1500. in England, a potion called dwale was used as an anesthetic. This mixture contained bile, opium, lettuce, bryony, and hemlock. Surgeons roused patients by rubbing vinegar and salt on their cheekbones. There are records of dwale in numerous literary sources, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” In the 13th century, we have the first prescription of the “spongia soporifica” – a sponge soaked in the juices of unripe mulberry, flax, mandragora leaves, ivy, lettuce seeds, lapathum, and hemlock with hyoscyamus. After treatment and/or storage, the sponge could be heated and the vapors inhaled with anesthetic effect.

Alchemist Ramon Llull has been credited with discovering diethyl ether in 1275. Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493–1541), better known as Paracelsus, discovered the analgesic properties of diethyl ether around 1525. It was first synthesized in 1540 by Valerius Cordus, who noted some of its medicinal properties. He called it oleum dulce vitrioli, a name that reflects the fact that it is synthesized by distilling a mixture of ethanol and sulfuric acid (known at that time as oil of vitriol). August Sigmund Frobenius gave the name Spiritus Vini Æthereus to the substance in 1730.


Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), discovered nitrous oxide. Beginning in 1775, Priestley published his research in Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, a six-volume work. Humphry Davy (1778–1829), a physicist known for the invention of the miner’s safety lamp, discovered the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide. Davy, who coined the term “laughing gas” for nitrous oxide, published his findings the following year in the now-classic treatise, Researches, chemical and philosophical–chiefly concerning nitrous oxide or dephlogisticated nitrous air, and its respiration. Davy was not a physician, and he never administered nitrous oxide during a surgical procedure. He was however the first to document the analgesic effects of nitrous oxide, as well as its potential benefits in relieving pain during surgery:

As nitrous oxide in its extensive operation appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations in which no great effusion of blood takes place.

By the late 1830s, Davy’s experiments had become widely publicized within academic circles in the northeastern United States. Wandering lecturers would hold public gatherings, referred to as “ether frolics”, where members of the audience were encouraged to inhale diethyl ether or nitrous oxide to demonstrate the mind-altering properties of these agents while providing entertainment to onlookers. Four notable men participated in these events and witnessed the use of ether in this manner. They were William Edward Clarke (1819–1898), Crawford W. Long (1815–1878), Horace Wells (1815–1848), and William T. G. Morton (1819–1868).

While attending undergraduate school in Rochester, New York in 1839, classmates Clarke and Morton apparently participated in ether frolics with some regularity. In January 1842, by now a medical student at Berkshire Medical College, Clarke administered ether to a Miss Hobbie, while Elijah Pope performed a dental extraction. In so doing, he became the first to administer an inhaled anesthetic to facilitate the performance of a surgical procedure. Clarke apparently thought little of his accomplishment, and chose neither to publish nor to pursue this technique any further. Indeed, this event is not even mentioned in Clarke’s biography.


Crawford W. Long was a physician and pharmacist practicing in Jefferson, Georgia in the mid-19th century. During his time as a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the late 1830s, he had observed and probably participated in the ether frolics that had become popular at that time. At these gatherings, Long observed that some participants experienced bumps and bruises, but afterward had no recall of what had happened. He postulated that that diethyl ether produced pharmacologic effects similar to those of nitrous oxide. On 30 March 1842, he administered diethyl ether by inhalation to a man named James Venable, in order to remove a tumor from the man’s neck. Long later removed a second tumor from Venable, again under ether anesthesia. He went on to employ ether as a general anesthetic for limb amputations and parturition. Long however did not publish his experience until 1849, thereby denying himself much of the credit he deserved.

On 10 December 1844, Gardner Quincy Colton held a public demonstration of nitrous oxide in Hartford, Connecticut. One of the participants, Samuel A. Cooley, sustained a significant injury to his leg while under the influence of nitrous oxide without noticing the injury. Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist present in the audience that day, immediately seized upon the significance of this apparent analgesic effect of nitrous oxide. The following day, Wells underwent a painless dental extraction while under the influence of nitrous oxide administered by Colton. Wells then began to administer nitrous oxide to his patients, successfully performing several dental extractions over the next couple of weeks.


William T. G. Morton, another New England dentist, was a former student and then-current business partner of Wells. He was also a former acquaintance and classmate of William Edward Clarke (the two had attended undergraduate school together in Rochester, New York). Morton arranged for Wells to demonstrate his technique for dental extraction under nitrous oxide general anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital, in conjunction with the prominent surgeon John Collins Warren. This demonstration, which took place on 20 January 1845, ended in failure when the patient cried out in pain in the middle of the operation.

On 30 September 1846, Morton administered diethyl ether to Eben Frost, a music teacher from Boston, for a dental extraction. Two weeks later, Morton became the first to publicly demonstrate the use of diethyl ether as a general anesthetic at Massachusetts General Hospital, in what is known today as the Ether Dome. On 16 October 1846, John Collins Warren operated on Edward Gilbert Abbott anesthetized using diethyl ether. News of this event rapidly traveled around the world and the age of anesthesia had begun.


I thought that in honor of the use of opium as an anesthetic I would celebrate today with a recipe using poppy seeds. Poppy seeds are well known in the U.S. as a sprinkle on buns and bagels, in Europe in dessert and cake baking, and as an ingredient in curries in India. Here is a simple marinade for Cornish game hens. You can roast them (as here) or grill them over hot coals.


Honey and Poppy Seed Glazed Game Hens


2 Cornish game hens cut in 2
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
⅓ cup honey
1 tbsp poppy seeds
1 ½ teaspoons mustard powder
¾ tsp ground ginger or 2 tsp freshly grated ginger


Preheat oven to 500 °F.

Place the game hens, skin side up on a greased roasting pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Whisk together the honey, poppy seeds, mustard and ginger. Brush liberally over the skin of the hens.

Roast uncovered for about 30 minutes in the middle of the oven or until the hens are nicely browned. Baste again halfway through.