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In 1790s Cornwall, why should anyone with limited resources throw up a perfectly decent apprenticeship as an apothecary to pursue an uncertain career in science? This not quite the question Golinski seeks to answer in this book, though he does ask how Humphry Davy (1778–1829) came to dedicate himself ‘to a profession that did not exist, or set out to assume a social identity [scientist] that was not yet available?’ (1).
Without Davy’s first step towards a scientific career, the rest would never have happened. In October 1798, his master was persuaded to cancel his indentures and Davy left Penzance, where he had thus far spent his entire life (of nearly 20 years), to work for Thomas Beddoes (1760–1808) as Superintendent of the newly founded Medical Pneumatic Institution (MPI) in Bristol. The outline of Davy’s subsequent career and research is very well known. In Bristol, he discovered the physiological properties of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), began his electrical researches and...