Davy, Edmond (Edmund) (1785–1857), chemist, was born at Penzance, Cornwall, the second son of William Davy. He was a cousin of Sir Humphry Davy (1779–1829), a noted chemist, pioneer of electrochemistry, discoverer of the composition of alkali metals, and inventor (1815) of the Davy safety lamp for miners. Educated in Penzance, he moved to London in 1804 where he was appointed (1807) operator and assistant to his famous cousin, then professor of chemistry at the celebrated Royal Institution. There he was primarily responsible for the running of the laboratory, but later he also took on the maintenance of the mineralogical collection. In both positions he was known for his meticulous and ordered approach.
In 1813 Davy was unanimously elected the first professor of chemistry in the recently incorporated Royal Cork Institution (RCI), at that time the only scientific institution in Ireland outside Dublin; later he was also secretary. It was an important appointment, and his research between 1813 and 1826 coincided with the growth in reputation of the RCI as a serious scientific establishment and assured it of links with mainstream science in the UK. As well as his chemical research on the catalytic action of platinum and studies on the fulminates, he helped to set up a geological and mineralogical collection at the RCI.
Davy left Cork in 1826 to succeed William Higgins (qv) as professor of chemistry at the RDS. There he revitalised the laboratory by running courses in practical chemistry throughout the year, thus providing useful training for laboratory assistants. Around this time he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1826), fellow of the Chemical Society of London, member of the RIA (1827), and an honorary member of the Société Française Statistique Universelle. It was while he was working in the laboratories of the RDS that he discovered in 1836 acetylene gas, for which he is best known. He identified it as a hydrocarbon, described its properties, and noted how well it burned; he even predicted some of its many uses. Although the discovery of this important industrial gas is normally attributed to the French scientist Pierre Eugene Marcellin Berthelot (1827–1907) more than twenty years later, Davy was the first to prepare and investigate it.
At the RDS Davy's research was increasingly connected with practical problems of the day, and he was an energetic advocate of spreading scientific knowledge beyond academic institutions, an enterprise that remained a lifelong interest for him. He instigated a series of popular science lectures to be given in provincial towns throughout Ireland, and he himself gave more than thirty courses of lectures on chemistry, notably on chemistry as applied to agricultural subjects. He published extensively: an incomplete bibliography, listing some thirty publications, is included in the Royal Society's Catalogue of scientific papers, 1800–1900. His research appeared in many different journals, including the Royal Dublin Society Journal, The Chemist, the Philosophical Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society, Thomson's Records, and the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy. His papers dealt with diverse topics such as the use of peat charcoal as a deodorising filter, the applications of electrochemistry, water and air quality, improving bread made from rain-damaged corn, and metallurgy.
In his detailed and personal ‘Memoir of the late Professor Davy’ (1857), William Barker (1810–73) eulogised Davy as one of the last of the great school of experimental chemists, while recording that his research was not ‘attended with the brilliant results which rewarded others of his contemporaries’ (Barker, 419) and noting that ‘modern principles have modified many of the chemical views that he held’ (Barker, 421). However, in commenting on Davy's career he acknowledged that ‘as a teacher . . . his career was one of eminent utility to society at large’ (Barker, 419). Although his achievements may have been superseded, his consistently hard work and the thoroughness of his experiments earned him a fellowship of the Royal Society, acknowledgement by his peers of the quality of his research.
By all accounts Davy was an excellent teacher and lectured clearly, illustrating important points with relevant demonstrations. He was also a kind-hearted man, sympathetic to those with problems and encouraging to all; he was tolerant and even humble, and was remembered by his friends as much for his personal warmth as for his work as a chemist. His industry, together with the practical nature of much of his research, was recognised by the government when he was pensioned on full salary upon his retirement in 1856, aged seventy-one. The RDS offered him additional money to continue his research into agricultural chemistry; he accepted this offer and continued to work in the laboratory. Having always had a strong and energetic constitution, after June 1856 his health deteriorated and he became increasingly unwell; Barker inferred that Davy's decline was attributable to the experimental work he was involved in at the RDS. He died 5 November 1857 at Kimmage Lodge, Co. Dublin.
Davy married Phillis Emma Barry, the only daughter of David Barry of Dundulerick, Co. Cork. They had several children, and their eldest son, Edmond William Davy (1826–98), became a chemist and medical doctor. Born 2 July 1826 at the Royal Cork Institution, South Mall, Cork, he attended TCD and studied for a medical degree, obtaining his BA in 1848 and MB in 1849, and later gaining an MD (1872) and MA (1873). While still pursuing his undergraduate studies he began to assist his father in the laboratory of the RDS and with him regularly presented scientific papers at the society's evening meetings (1851–5). As a chemist he is chiefly remembered as the first to achieve the complete decomposition of urea using hypochlorites, a significant advance in organic chemistry at the time. The method he developed for estimating urea was modified by other chemists, and came into general use. He also proposed a test for carbolic acid, which would work in the presence of organic matter or urine. This was important because carbolic acid, a poison, was widely used as an antiseptic, and was a frequent cause of death when taken by mistake (or administered deliberately).
Appointed lecturer in chemistry to the Carmichael School (the School of Anatomy, Medicine, and Surgery at the Richmond Hospital, Dublin) in 1850, Davy focused much of his research, like his father, on the practical application of chemistry to contemporary problems, especially those relating to agriculture. He was elected a member of the RIA (1855), from which he obtained several research grants. Upon his father's death in 1857, Davy left the hospital and succeeded him as professor of chemistry at the RDS. When the Royal College of Science was established in Dublin in 1867, he was transferred from the RDS to the new college as the first professor of agriculture (1867), remaining until the position was abolished in 1877. During this period he was appointed professor of medical jurisprudence at the RCSI (1870). The forensic applications of his work led to his giving evidence in the notorious trial of Patrick Joyce for his involvement in the so-called Maamtrasna murders in 1882. He married Maria Margaret Hewson, youngest daughter of Captain Maurice Hewson, of Co. Kerry, a distinguished naval officer. They had two sons and four daughters. He died in 1898.