Humphry Davy: The experimental self


This essay examines the career of Humphry Davy against a background of the development of disciplinary structures in science and the exploration of individual subjectivity in the Romantic period. I show how Davy constructed a charismatic persona for himself as a scientific lecturer and researcher with his deployment of spectacular and powerful chemical instrumentation. Doing so, he both exploited and consolidated new institutional and disciplinary formations. I also show how Davy’s career called for continuous self-fashioning in a changing social milieu, how demands for more thoroughgoing institutional reform sidelined him, and how he was subjected to ridicule in a context of unstable gender-relations. Davy’s case suggests that the establishment of disciplinary institutions had a complex relationship to formations of personal identity, and that the career of a charismatic individual in such institutions could be a precarious one.

Publication Date


Journal Title

Eighteenth-Century Studies


Johns Hopkins University Press

Document Type



© 2011 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies