Jan Golinski, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science

Jan Golinski, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2016) 256 pp. $30.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780226351360

One of the early biographies of Humphry Davy (1778–1829) was entitled The Mercurial Chemist; mercurial being a not inappropriate description of his personality. In this latest biographical study Jan Golinski, an historian of science at the University of New Hampshire, has decomposed Davy’s personality into its six distinct elements. Drawing on the historiography of self-fashioning, Golinski argues that Davy was a master of self-creation and adapted his public personae to satisfy the different exigencies pertaining to various aspects of his career. The word 'experimental' in Golinski’s title implies that Davy consciously projected, tested and altered his personality to suit both the context and his audience.

The persona that Davy adopted while employed at the Bristol Pneumatic Institution (1798–1801) was that of 'The Enthusiast'. He conscientiously undertook chemical research and frequently experimented on himself by inhaling gases in order to chart their effects, particularly on his emotions. Under the influence of mind-blowing nitrous oxide he shed his inhibitions, freed his imagination, became exceedingly sociable and adopted the mantle of an enthusiast, a term with radical political and religious connotations.

Backing away from this rather dangerous role when he entered the sombre portals of London’s Royal Institution in 1801, he cultivated the personality and cult of 'The Genius', a role with strong Romantic connotations. Many of those attending his popular chemistry lectures – particularly women – proclaimed him to be a genius. 'His ardour, his eloquence, his poetical faculty, the nature of his intense egotism, his countenance, his manners – before he was spoiled – and his pleasures, all spoke the man of genius'; to quote Harriet Martineau.1 There is some overlap between 'The Genius' and 'The Dandy', the third of Davy’s identities on Golinski’s list. The term dandy indicates that he was very much in the public eye, dressed fashionably and mixed with those who could advance his social standing.

Davy discovered the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine and isolated several other elements, including potassium, sodium and barium. He also (allegedly) invented the safety lamp that greatly improved the safety of mines. Drawing on these successes he bathed in the charismatic aura of 'The Discoverer'. Yet he often exaggerated his own contributions to science and fought bitterly against those who questioned his achievements. For example, he was embroiled in a priority dispute with the Newcastle engineer George Stephenson over the invention of the safety lamp.

Perhaps the most historically interesting of Davy’s roles was that of 'The Philosopher'. He cultivated the view that he possessed a deep, almost mystical, insight into the structure of the world that set him apart from the common man. Unlike the crude empiric or the mechanic, the philosopher was motivated by high ideals and not by financial gain. Thus he refused to make money from his invention of the safety lamp and portrayed himself as concerned only with the benefit it – or rather he – had bestowed to humanity.

Davy’s sixth role, 'The Traveller', is perhaps the most problematic as it includes his travels on the Continent in 1813–14 and the fourteen-month visit that ended with his death in May 1829. During his first Continental tour he was in rude health and arrogantly offended the leading chemists of France. A very different Davy crossed the Channel in March 1828 following the stroke he suffered in early 1827. He was now depressed and eschewed company, turning instead to write Consolations in Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher, in which he concealed his personality by taking refuge behind created characters who engaged in a fantasy dialogue.

Golinski’s analysis is highly successful in showing that many of the most important events in Davy’s life come into focus through the lenses provided by his six personae. Moreover, Golinski sensitively explores the historical significance of each of these identities. Yet some aspects of Davy’s biography fall through the cracks, most obviously his family background and the formative influences that operated during the first two decades of his life. The reader is also left with the unanswered question of whether the different identifies overlapped or conflicted with each other. If there was conflict, could the dissonance be resolved.

In his introductory chapter Golinski refers to 'Davy’s experiments in selfhood. His project was more than a superficial matter of putting on an appearance or staging a performance. His public self-presentation resonated with introspective reflection' (10). Davy’s six personae, as identified by Golinski, thus appear to be examples of the multiple social roles that we all perform. At various times we may play the roles of teacher, researcher, administrator, partner, parent and cook. We can be more or less successful in each of these roles. Moreover, each social role can (and perhaps should) resonate with our 'introspective reflection[s]'. So it would appear that the kind of analysis Golinski has applied to Davy can also be applied to anyone else. So what’s so special about Davy? One answer becomes clear if we focus on his historical context. As the role of scientist was not available to him – it was only framed two years after his death – the personae he adopted were chosen from those accessible to him at the time.

I read Golinski as claiming that Davy’s personality can be reduced to the sum of his social roles. On this account it would appear that he had no fixed identity but was 'always adopting masks of one kind or another' (174). Yet what – if anything – existed behind the masks? Golinski’s imagery suggests a jester. However, Davy was not a comic character but a tragic individual, often consumed by insecurity and anger. Who was the person (or Self, as understood by Jung) concealed behind the masks that Davy had carefully constructed? To Golinski’s list of Davy’s social roles should be added an understanding of other aspects of his personal psychology. For a start I would characterise his personality as narcissistic, which has a close bearing on many of the issues discussed by Golinski.

Geoffrey Cantor. University of Leeds & UCL

1 Harriet Martineau, History of the Thirty Years’ Peace. AD 1816–1846, 4 vols (London: George Bell & Sons 1877), vol. 2, p. 370.