Davy’s Audience

I was at a science symposium, or so I thought. It was a symposium where I was presenting my work in a poster. It was organized by our funding body. Most talks…well, all but one, were about science. Although not closely related to what I did, some biological problem was being addressed. Until…a historian walked onto the stage to give her talk.

Hattie Lloyd is a PhD student from UCL and studies Humphry Davy’s audience. Her talk was interesting to me for 2 reasons. First, she reminded me of the chemist I had forgotten about – Davy- and second, she chooses to study his audience and not his work or his lectures. Interesting.

She narrates the genesis of her study in an anecdotal fashion, saying she found many references suggesting that his lectures were attended by many women. Of course, in his time women were excluded from Universities. Therefore, Hattie took an interest in why women attended his lectures and went on to show us her findings that many affluent women who had inherited lands, used to attend his lectures to understand the latest theories and discoveries in chemistry at the time to try and implement these theories (many related to heat transfers) in their day to day lives, of which the kitchen was a big part. She further told us about the Scottish female mathematicians who had attended Davy’s lectures.

Hattie discussed with us her impression of the time, which is that there weren’t many women pursuing careers in science. In fact, women weren’t allowed to. But she tells us how her findings show that women were, in fact, scientifically oriented and many of these disobeyed the rules of the time. She tells us how Davy said in public that he’d rather not have women in laboratories but did not discourage them from attending his lectures. On the contrary, Hattie presented some evidence of him having supported a certain patroness of the Royal Institution in conducting experiments at her high estate.

Hattie is a confident speaker, very much in control of herself and her audience. And I thoroughly enjoyed her talk. She has identified ~860 women who went to Davy’s chemistry lectures. I found her work very stimulating.

There were many questions from the audience…an audience full of scientists, mind you! And that’s a great compliment to Hattie.

One particular question was interesting…and as Hattie answered it, she said what I would have said. Since I didn’t record her talk, I can’t exactly tell you what she said, but here’s what I remember and I am quite certain this is very close to what was being said…

Q: Given there are more women in this room today than men, do you still think gender equality is a problem in science?

A: I think it still is. Although there are many more women here today than men, as you climb up the ranks, you see fewer and fewer women holding important positions. So yes, I think it still is. But I have to admit that it is worse in history.


Do you think gender equality is still a problem?

Do you know of women who many have contributed significantly to your fields of work at a time when they were not allowed to?

Leave your comments below…



18 thoughts on “Davy’s Audience”

  1. I was very sad during my Engg. When I came to know that girls don’t prefer mechanical Engg. They usually go for computer science etc…
    Sometimes girls do become selective in preferring options… How many of you agree with me I don’t know but yes there is discrimination but it is sometimes preferred and sometimes enforced!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t have answers, but I did some follow-up reading about Henry Davy. To my very pleasant surprise he was friends with Wordsworth and Coleridge, wrote poems of his own, and was interested in painting. In addition he wrote a bit about philosophy,travel, and flyfishing. What a remarkably well-rounded person! I’m going to our library to look for a biography.

    P.S. Did Hattie Lloyd report that while he built a popular following he was an entertaining lecturer, vibrant, colorful, young, and single? (At least that’s one picture I got from the wiki people.)

    Davy sounds somewhat like today’s star talker on astrophysics, Neil deGrasse Tyson. He “packs ’em in,” as we say here. But not just women, unless later on somebody decides to study his audience! Still, I can’t imagine anyone earning a PhD by doing that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Albert! It’s so wonderful to know that you not only liked this article but also were inspired by it to read more about Davy and his work. However, may I correct you by saying that the Davy in question is a chemist, Sir Humphry Davy. He is credited for his extensive work on discovering many elements and also the Davy lamp. If you would be interested in reading more about him, here’s a link to a short BBC biography I very much enjoyed reading.
      Davy seems to have been a very good speaker. Although Hattie didn’t talk much about his prowess as a speaker (as this was slightly irrelevant to her subject of study, which was his audience), she did mention a bit about his vibrant lectures and that he was single – both in response to some questions that were asked.
      If you manage to find a good biography of his, do drop in a line to name the author and the title. I would love to take a look.
      Also, I am sure your comment is very encouraging to Hattie as well! She would love to know that her work is interesting to many!


      1. I apologize for my careless proof reading. It’s Sir Humphry, of course. He’s the guy I read about. I’ve known a few Henrys, but never a Humphrey. And certainly never a sir. So

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I often face this problem when I’m replying or commenting through my phone. The auto correct feature is great but it seems to believe it’s above us humans 😉


  3. I think we still have a long way to go. though I was happy to know about the transgender woman in India who holds a high position in work, I find many of them still at traffic lights begging. and recently our Government had this horrible idea of using transgender people to collect dues from people using their ”fear factor” isn’t that awful?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an awful idea that is! I am appalled at the Government’s idea. I didn’t hear about this at all but it is a ridiculous thought!
      I agree that we have a long way to go. But the only consolation is that we are at least heading there 🙂


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