RI Christmas Lectures: An Irish Connection

In Spring 1812, Michael Faraday attended four lectures at the Royal Institution by Humphrey Davy, Professor of Chemistry at the RI. Davy’s lectures were given every Friday night and were open to the public. Faraday was to go on and work at the RI, thanks to Davy’s influence, and inspired by Davy he initiated the famous Christmas Lectures in 1825. He delivered 19 of these himself—the last being the famous “Chemical History of a Candle” in 1860.

Also in the audience in Spring 1812 was Edmund Davy, a cousin of Humphrey and also a chemist. The following year he moved to Ireland, and was elected professor of Chemistry at the Royal Cork Institution, and in 1826 he became Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Dublin Society. While Edmund’s work was always over-shadowed by his elder cousin, he made some significant discoveries, including that of acetylene in 1836 as well as significant work on oxidation reactions at platinum while at Cork. He studied the composition of air in fever hospitals in the hope of finding something impure present (he didn’t) and also explained the sacrificial action of zinc in preventing corrosion using buoys in Dun Laoghaire harbour. But of relevance here is his work in popularising science through public lectures.

Science Public Lectures

The appetite for public lectures in science grew rapidly in the early nineteenth century. The efforts of Humphrey Davy and Faraday in England and Justus von Liebig in Germany gave rise to a cultural shift, whereby an interest in science was becoming increasing popular among the public. This was the case in Ireland. Thomas Wyse told an audience at the Waterford Literary and Scientific Society in 1833 to ‘banish all modem politics and controversial theology from their arenas’ and look to ‘Priestley, Brougham, and Watt as the true Promethei of our present race – the true architects of our civilisation’. Public lectures in science became so popular so much so that the medical journal, the Lancet, joked that Dubliners knew the coming of autumn by the appearance of advertisements for science lectures on the walls of the city and a Scottish visitor reporting that the Irish are all agog for science. Such was the demand that the president of the Royal Irish Academy warned in 1860 that the public taste for scientific and utilitarian pursuits was so strong that the literary arts were in danger of extinction.

It is in this context that Edmund Davy promoted science through public lectures. While Faraday initiated the Christmas lectures, in Ireland money was provided for popular lectures in science through the provinces, something that was not replicated anywhere else in the United Kingdom. The scheme was proposed by Isaac Weld and Richard Griffith, and supported by Edmund Davy. While the early years of the scheme demonstrated an eagerness on the part of local scientific societies who were charged with the organisation and promotion of these “missionary lectures”, lack of funds and logistical capability meant that the government turned to the Royal Dublin Society to organise these lecture tours centrally. The request took the form of a threat; the RDS were informed in 1829 that if they did not organise such lectures, their funding would be withdrawn. This happened, but after some political hand wringing, the RDS finally agreed in 1836 with a proposal that they would provide lecturers for provincial lectures, which began in 1838. The government grant was £200 in 1838 and increased to £300 in 1842, such was the demand. In the 15 years from 1838, 127 lectures by 23 lecturers were given to the four provinces; Ulster: 30, Leinster 36, Munster 55, Connaught: 6. Edmund Davy delivered 28 of these, often on the topic of how chemistry related to agriculture. (He delivered a further 11 from 1854 to 1866). While the high number indicates a dedication and sense of the value of these lectures, he was not among the most popular of chemists. When Waterford were offered Davy in 1853, they refused, because the risk of low attendance would cost them financially.

However, chemistry was a popular topic for a lecture as it was visual and could use the audience’s senses. Experiments included the manufacture of ammonia and sulfuric acid and the electrical decomposition of water. Things didn’t always go to plan: a lecture in Kilkenny in 1845 produced phosphoric acid and chlorine gas in a poorly ventilated hall, the audience had to evacuate.

From 1854 onwards, a scheme of offering an examination to attendees was introduced, but it had a low uptake. However, these lectures though are seen as an important step in getting science onto the Irish education curriculum, and I think it is interesting that both Faraday and Davy were influenced by those early public lectures they saw delivered by Humphrey Davy.


Italicised quotes taken from ref 2 and 3. 

  1. J. Russell, Journal of Chemical Education, “Edmund Davy”, 1953, 6, 302-304.
  2. E. Leaney, Irish Historical Studies, “Missionaries of Science: Provincial Lectures in Nineteenth-Century Ireland”, 2005, 34(135), 266-288.
  3. E. Leaney, Éire-Ireland, “’Evanescent Impressions’: Public Lectures and the Popularization of Science in Ireland, 1770–1860″, 2008, 43, 384.