Physician to the Forces John Davy was the brother and biographer of Sir Humphrey Davy (1778–1829), a British chemist best known for his experiments in electro-chemistry and his invention of a miner's safety lamp. John Davy was himself eminent as a chemist, geologist and an experimental physiologist. He discovered phosgene in 1812. He also found that the venous blood of cholera patients contained less carbonic acid than in health. This led Dr Tunstall of Bath to administer petroleum mixed in brandy as a stimulant to his cholera patient, so as to supply the pure carbon which was lacking in their blood.
John Davy studied medicine in Edinburgh and took his MD degree in that university in 1814. He entered the army as a surgeon, and at the time of his death held the rank of Inspector General of Army Hospitals. In 1840, Dr Davy proceeded to Constantinople in command of a party of medical officers to help form a Medical Department for the Turkish Army, and to organise their military hospitals. He was under instructions from Lord Viscount Palmerston to ascertain whether it might be possible to engage at Malta, persons possessing a certain degree of education for employment in the Turkish Medical Services, and to employ them in Constantinople, should their services be required. Dr Davy remained nearly two years in Turkey but his mission was unsuccessful. Nonetheless he was enabled to acquire extensive knowledge of eastern affairs, of the peculiarities of the climate and of the resources of the country.1
John Davy was a most copious writer, having written several volumes on general subjects, besides a large number of papers ranging over the whole field of natural science. In his preface to the Notes and Observations on the Ionian Islands and Malta published in 1842 Davy encouraged the Medical Staff of the Army to interest itself in the countries it served and to embark on scientific observations. He wrote:
Amongst the advantages enjoyed by the medical officers of the army, the opportunity which the service affords of visiting distant countries may justly be ranked as one of the most considerable, combining the pleasure and profit of travel with professional duties and culture, so that individuals, if intent on self-improvement, may derive at the same time a double benefit. During a period of twenty six years of almost universal peace, when many hundred well educated and intelligent medical officers have been employed in our extensive colonies how little has been contributed by them to the general stock of knowledge.
Among his many presentations to learned societies were:
- 1812: On a Gaseous Compound of Carbonic Oxide and Chlorine. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 102 (1812): 144-151.
- 1846: On the use of the microscope as an aid in chemical inquiry. Paper read at the Royal College of Chemistry on 3 June 1846.
- 1846: Coke poisoning in a church at Ambleside, in Journal of Public Health and Sanitary Review No V pp 104 April 1856 London Thomas Richards.
- 1862: On some of the more important diseases of the army, with contributions to pathology.
- 1862: On the Question whether Oxide of Arsenic taken in very minute quantities for a long period is injurious to man. Paper read at Cambridge, at the meeting of The British Association for the Advancement of science.
- 1865: Leanness and animal food and the Effects of scanty and deficient food. Two papers read at Birmingham, at the meeting of The British Association for the Advancement of science
- 1867: On the influence of air on vital action as tested by the air pump. Paper read at Dundee, at the meeting of The British Association for the Advancement of science
Physician to the Forces John Davy died at his residence, Lesketh How near Ambleside Cumbria on 24 January 1868.