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Perkin, William Henry

William Henry Perkin

British chemist Sir William Henry Perkin (1838–1907) created the first synthetic dye (aniline purple, or mauveine) in 1856. Recognizing its commercial potential, he patented his discovery and set about manufacturing it. Perkin's continued research went on to find other aniline dye colors and synthetic scents. His findings lent newfound respectability to the field of chemistry and proved invaluable to medical research as well.

Early Life and Education

Perkin was born on March 12, 1838, in London, England. His father was a builder, and the family lived in fairly prosperous circumstances in an otherwise rather disreputable neighborhood in London's East End. As a boy, Perkin's innate curiosity prompted early interests in the arts, sciences, photography, and engineering. But it was a chance stumbling upon a run–down, yet functional, laboratory in his late grandfather's home that solidified the young man's ardor for chemistry.

As a student at the City of London School, Perkin became immersed in the study of chemistry. His talent and devotion to the subject were perceived by Perkin's teacher, Thomas Hall, who encouraged him to attend a series of lectures given by eminent scientist Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution. Those speeches fired the young chemist's enthusiasm further, and he became determined to attend the Royal College of Chemistry. Perkin's father balked at first, hoping to convince his bright young son to follow his older brother's footsteps into the more respectable field of architecture, but pressure from Hall and the wishes of his son won out. Perkin entered the Royal College of Chemistry in 1953, at the age of 15.

At the time of Perkin's enrollment, the Royal College of Chemistry was headed by noted German chemist August Wilhelm Hofmann. Perkin's scientific gifts soon caught Hofmann's attention, and within two years, he became Hofmann's youngest assistant. Not long after that, Perkins made the discovery that would render him both famous and wealthy.

First Synthetic Dye Created by Accident

In 1856, quinine was the only viable medical treatment for malaria. Derived from the bark of the cinchona tree native to South America, demand for the drug was surpassing the available supply. (Not incidentally, England was also still embroiled in the Crimean War at the time). Thus, when Hofmann made some passing comments about the desirability of a synthetic substitute for quinine, it is unsurprising that his star pupil was moved to take up the challenge.

During his Easter vacation from school in 1856, Perkin spent his time in the laboratory on the top floor of his family's house. He was attempting to manufacture quinine from aniline, an inexpensive and readily available coal tar waste product. Despite his best efforts, however, he did not end up with quinine. Instead, he produced a mysterious dark sludge. Luckily, Perkin's scientific training and nature prompted him to investigate the substance further. Incorporating potassium dichromate and alcohol into the aniline at various stages of the experimental process, he finally happened upon a deep purple solution. And proving the truth of famed scientist Louis Pasteur's words, "chance favors only the prepared mind," Perkin saw the potential of his unexpected find.

Historically, textile dyes were made from such natural sources as lichens, mollusks, bat guano, and Madder root. Some of these, such as guano, were unappealing on principle; others, such as the glandular mucus of snails, were difficult to obtain and outrageously expensive. Indeed, the purple color extracted from snails was once so dear that only the very highest echelons of society could afford it. Further, natural dyes tended to be muddy in hue and fade quickly. It was against this backdrop that Perkin's discovery was made.

Perkin quickly grasped that his purple solution could be used to color fabric, thus making it the world's first synthetic dye. Just as rapidly realizing the significance of this breakthrough, he lost no time in patenting it. But perhaps the most fascinating of all Perkin's reactions to his find was his nearly instant recognition of the commercial possibilities the new dye presented.

Mauve's Debut

Perkin originally named his dye Tyrian Purple (also called aniline purple and mauveine), but it later became commonly known as mauve (from the French for the plant used to make the color violet). He asked advice of Scottish dye works owner Robert Pullar, who assured Perkin that manufacturing the dye would be well worth it if the color remained fast and the cost was not prohibitive. So, over the fierce objections of his mentor, Hofmann (who saw his student as "selling out"), Perkin left college to give birth to the modern chemical industry. He was only eighteen years old.

With the help of his father and brother, Perkin set up a factory on a six–acre site near the Grand Union Canal in Greenford Green, not far from London. Utilizing the cheap and plentiful coal tar that was an almost unlimited byproduct of London's gas street lighting, the dye works began producing the world's first synthetically dyed material in 1857. Already historic in its very founding, the company received an unexpected commercial boost from the Empress Eugenie of France when she decided the new color flattered her. In short order, mauve was the necessary shade for all the fashionable ladies of France. Not to be outdone, England's Queen Victoria also appeared in public wearing a mauve gown, thus making it the rage of England as well. The dye was bold and fast, and the public clamored for more. Perkins went back to the drawing board.

Other Achievements and Awards

Although Perkin's fame was achieved and fortune assured by his first discovery, the chemist continued his research. Among the other dyes he developed and introduced were aniline red (1859), aniline black (1863), and alkalate magenta (1864). In the late 1860s, Britannia Violet and Perkin's Green were added to the line. Then, in 1869, Perkin succeeded in improving on the work of German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann by synthesizing a commercially viable version of alizarin (the Germans' process having been too expensive to be feasible), the vibrant red shade previously derived from the Madder root. By the 1870s, however, Germany had begun to pull ahead in the dye industry and Perkin's fertile mind was moving in other directions. In 1874, he sold the factory to Brooke, Simpson, and Spiller and retired from the chemical manufacturing business at the age of 36. It is important to note that Perkin's synthetic dye discoveries had ramifications far beyond the merely decorative. The dyes also became vital to medical research in many ways. For instance, they were used to stain previously invisible microbes and bacteria, allowing researchers to identify such bacilli as tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax.

After Perkin's retirement from the industry he helped create, he discovered a way to change the structure of organic compounds on a molecular level, which method came to be known as the "Perkin synthesis." Using this technique, he began to create synthetic perfume and fragrances and, with partner B.F. Duppa, started another career in simulated scents. Perkin also spent time researching more serious matters, studying, for instance, the relationship between chemical constitution and rotation of the plane of polarization in a magnetic field. The result of that research was his articulation of a law that described the variation of the investigated rotation in bodies belonging to homologous series, and eventually won him a Davy Medal from the Royal Society in 1889.

Perkin remained active in his field in other ways, such as being secretary of the Chemical Society in 1869, and president in 1883. He also sat on the boards of several scientific journals. His many accolades (in addition to the Davy Medal) include the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1879, the Longstaff Medal of the Chemical Society in 1889, and the Albert Medal of the Society of Arts in 1890. In 1906, there was an international celebration of Perkin's mauve discovery, during which he traveled to the United States. There, he was awarded the inaugural SCI Perkin Medal, an honor that came to be regarded as the highest possible in the American chemical industry. The medal was largely in recognition of scientific research as the key to industrial innovation, so it was hardly surprising that it bore Perkin's name or that he was its first recipient. That same year, Perkin was also knighted back home for his contributions to science, industry, and his country.

For all his unprecedented innovations, accolades, and ongoing curiosity, however, Perkin remained an unassuming man who shunned the limelight. Churchgoing and unpretentious, he was perhaps too quick to give credit where it was not in fact due. Nonetheless, he had captured the attention and imagination of the world. Nearly a century and a half after Perkin's discovery, Arnold Thackray, president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, summarized the great chemist's contributions in Chemical & Engineering News. "In the spring of 1856, 18–year–old William Henry Perkin was in his lab attempting to synthesize quinine. Instead, he created the first synthetic dyestuff: aniline purple, or mauve. Realizing the significance of what he had done, Perkin moved quickly to patent his invention and to establish its commercial possibilities. Not only that, but he risked the family fortune to set up a manufacturing plant, and all the while continued his seminal research."

Perkin died on July 14, 1907, in Sudbury, England. His astounding legacy lived on through his son and namesake, who followed in his father's footsteps through the City of London School and the Royal College of Science. The younger Perkin went on to study in Germany before becoming a professor of chemistry at the Heriot–Watt College in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1887 and then professor of organic chemistry at Owens College in Manchester, England in 1892. Like his father before him, he won the Davy Medal from the Royal Society (1904), just three years before the man who discovered both a substance and an industry passed away.


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Perkin, William Henry


(b. London, England, 12 March 1838; d. Sudbury, England, 14 July 1907)

synthetic organic chemistry, physical organic chemistry.

Perkin was the son of George Fowler Perkin, a builder and contractor. He became interested in chemistry at an early age and in 1851 was sent to the City of London school, where—although science was not part of the curriculum—he was able to attend the weekly lectures on chemistry given by one of the classmaters during the dinner hour. Perkin’s father was opposed to his making a career in chemistry, but he was encouraged by his master, Thomas Hall, through whose intercession he was enrolled in the Royal College of Science when he was fifteen. Perkin attended the lectures of the German chemist A. W. von Hofmann and, by the end of his second year at the college, was appointed Hofmann’s assistant.

Perkin established his own laboratory at home at about the same time; one of his first pieces of private research was concerned with a coloring material. With Arthur H. Church he began to investigate the reduction products of dinitrobenzene and dinitronaphthalene. From the latter, Perkin and Church obtained a colored substance that they named “nitrosonaphthalene,” which proved to be one of the first of the azo-dyes derived from naphthalene to be manufactured. They subsequently patented their process. Perkin’s major discovery, that of mauve, the first synthetic dyestujj, occurred shortly thereafter, during the Easter vacation of 1856, when Perkin was only eighteen.

Hofmann had previously remarked to Perkin on the desirability of synthesizing quinine. Taking up the problem Perkin (basing his experiments on the idea, now understood to be unsound, that the structure of a chemical compound could be determined from the molecular formula alone) first treated toluidine with bichromate of potash, then repeated the process with an aniline salt. From the latter he obtained not quinine but a dirty, dark-colored precipitate. Some special instinct caused him to examine this precipitate further, and he discovered it to have coloring properties. From it he succeeded in isolating mauve, or aniline purple, the first dyestuff to be produced commercially from coal-tar. Almost immediately he sent a sample to a firm of dyers in Perth, with the request that they try it for coloring silk. In reply he received a letter that said, “If your discovery does not make the goods too expensive, it is decidedly one of the most valuable that has come out for a long time.”

Perkin thus decided to patent his method for manufacturing the new dyestuff. His father agreed to provide financial support, although Hofmann had tried to discourage the venture, and a factory building was begun at Greenford Green in June 1857. Aming the initial problems that the manufacturers faced was the refining of suitable raw materials; the eighteen-year-old Perkin had to work out a method of converting nitrobenzene to aniline and to devise not only a new technique but also a new apparatus. Nonetheless Perkin’s “Tyrian purple” was being used in London dyehouses within six months, and shortly thereafter other firms in England and France were engaged in its production. Many other produres for making mauve were soon patented. These represented only slight modifications of Perkin’s original process, but fortunately for Perkin none of these newer methods yielded mauve as cheaply as his “bichromate method.

Perkin’s discovery gave impetus to a new coal-tar dyestuffs industry. Perkin was able to keep his factory working at a profit in spite of the discovery of a number of other new coloring materials by a number of other chemists; in 1864 he himself introduced a new method for the alkylation of magenta, which allowed him to compete with the manufacturers of other violet dyes.

In 1868 the German chemists Graebe and Liebermann announced that they had synthesized alizarin, the natural coloring matter of madder; their process, however, was too expensive to be of more than scientific interest. Within a year Perkin worked out two new methods to manufacture alizarin more cheaply; both used coal-tar products, one being based upon dichloroanthracene and the other upon the sulfonic acid of anthraquinone. Synthetic alizarin soon replaced rose madder as the prome red dye, both in England and on the Continent. By the end of 1869 Perkin’s company had made a ton of alizarin, and by 1871 they were manufacturing 220 tons a year.

Perkin had always hoped to devote himself completely to pure science, and by 1873 he found that his factory and patents could guarantee him the means for a modest retirement. The following year, when he was thirty-six, he sold his factory and turned full time to the research in pure chemistry that he had conducted concurrently with his industrial work. He had already made significant contributions to organic chemistry, even while burdened by commerce; in 1858, a year after his factory had opened, he had discovered that aminoacetic acid with ammonia. By 1860, in collaboration with B. F. Duppa, he had established the relationships between tartaric, fumaric, and maleic acids and had accomplished the synthesis of cinnamic acid from dibromo succinic acid. About 1867 he began to investigate the action of acetic anhydride on aromatic aldehydes, which led him to the method of synthesizing unsaturated acids by what is now known as “Perkin’s synthesis”-a method that he applied, within a year of its discovery, to synthesizing coumarin. This line of investigation culminated, after Perkin’s retirement from the dyestuffs industry, in his discovery that cinnamic acid could be synthesized from benzaldehyde—a discovery that made possible the first synthesis of indigo by Baeyer and Caro.

Upon retiring from business Perkin had a new house built at Sudbury and converted the old, adjacent one into a laboratory, where he continued to work almost until the time of his death. In 1881 he became interested in the magnetic rotatory polarization of certain organic compounds and so developed his investigations that the examination of this property became an important tool in considering questions of molecular structure. Perkin devoted the last twently-five years of his life to this physica aspect of organic chemistry; he was commended for his work by Professoe Bruehl, himself one of the pioneers of the application of optical methods to the determination of chemical constitutions, who there was little, almost nothing, known of this subject, certainly nothing of practical use to the chemist. You created a new branch of science.…”

Perkin’s personal life was essentially uneventful. His devotion to his work and his family was so complete that, aside from participating in the activities of several scientific societies, he took no part in outside affairs. He was married twice; in 1859 to Jemima Harriet Lissett, who died in 1862, then in 1866 to a Polish girl, Alexandrine Caroline Mollwo, who survived him. He had two sons, both of whom became distinguished professors of chemistry, from his first marriage and one son, Frederick, and four daughters from his second. Perkin was of a retiring disposition and chose to avoid publicity; although colleagues in pure chemistry accorded him considerable recognition for his work, he was less honored by his co-workers in the field of commercial dyestuffs manufacture. In 1906, however, jubilee celebrations were held in England and the United States in commemoration of Perkin’s discovery of mauve; distinguished scientists and industrialists from all over the world attended them, and Perkin was knighted upon this occasion. He died of pneumonia, perhaps weadened by the strain attendant upon celebrity, shortly thereafter.


A complete list of Perkin’s work is in Sidney M. Edelstein, “Sir William Henry Perkin,” in American Dyestuff Reporter, 45 (1956), 598–608.

For further information on Perkin’s life and work, see B. Harrow, Eminent Chemists of Our Times (New York, 1927); R. Meldola, Jubilee of the Discovery of Mauve and of the Foundation of Coal-Tar Industry by Sir W. H. Perkin (London, 1906), and “Obituary Notice,” in Journal of the Chemical Society, 93 (1908), 2214; and M. Reiman, “On Aniline and Its Derivatives,” a treatise on the manufacture of aniline colors, to which is added an appendix, “The Report on the Colouring Matters Derived from Coal Tar,” shown at the French Ex hibition (1867) by A. W. von Hofmann, Mme G. DeLair, and C. Girard; William Crookes revised and edited the whole work (London, 1868).

Sidney Edelstein

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Perkin, William Henry

Perkin, William Henry


William Henry Perkin was an entrepreneur and a self-made millionaire at an early age, long before the era of personal computers and dot-coms. His serendipitous synthesis of the purple dye mauve (also known as mauveine or aniline purple) in 1856 brought brightly colored clothing to the masses and laid the foundation for today's chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

Perkin was born on March 12, 1838, in London, England. He was a curious boy who liked to play with instruments, tools, and paint. Perkin saw something wonderful in chemistry and dropped his other pursuits after a friend performed for him chemical experiments that yielded crystalline products. A few years later he enrolled at the City of London School and attended chemistry lectures given by Thomas Hall, an instructor at the school. Hall recognized Perkin's ability and arranged for him to enroll at the Royal College of Science, where the German chemist August von Hofmann was a teacher.

Hofmann appointed the seventeen-year-old Perkin as his personal assistant and guided him to work on the synthesis of the antimalarial drug quinine. Perkin had his own ideas for the synthesis of quinine and pursued them in his lab at his parents' home. During Easter break 1856 Perkin ran a reaction with aniline (a compound derived from coal tar) and potassium dichromate that produced a black sludge. Dissolving the sludge in ethyl alcohol, Perkin found that the solution took on an intense purple color. Instead of synthesizing quinine, Perkin had made the first synthetic dye derived from coal tar: mauve.

Perkin undoubtedly appreciated the significance of his discovery, as the worldwide dye and textile industry was the largest chemical industry at that time. Most dyes were derived from natural sources (plants or insects), and chemists were only just beginning to investigate synthetic dyes. Purple was an especially desired color, as expensive natural purple dyes made purpledyed cloth too expensive for most people. Perkin's discovery was also especially timely, as mauve mania had hit the world a year earlier. Demand for the natural purple dye derived from lichen hit manic proportions (and a cheap, synthetic substitute would be worth vast sums of money).

Perkin left school after patenting his discovery, but promised himself that he would return to research one day. He and members of his family soon formed a company to mass-produce mauve from coal tar, and in 1859 the Perkin and Sons factory commenced production. Mauve mania, however, was short-lived, and within a few years the red dyes fuchsia (or magenta) and alizarin were the craze. Perkin was quick to capitalize on these manias, and made an immense fortune in the process.

But Perkin was not alone: Dye companies quickly sprang up in Austria, England, France, Germany, and Switzerland, and competition became intense. Companies created research subsidiaries that employed hundreds of chemists and found new uses for the flood of compounds being synthesized in their labs. Some of the subsidiaries eventually manufactured pharmaceuticals and explosives.

In 1874 Perkin retired from manufacturing and returned to chemical research. He discovered a reaction (the Perkin reaction) for producing unsaturated carboxylic acids. He also synthesized coumarin, an accomplishment that laid the foundation for the synthetic perfume industry. Perkin died on July 14, 1907, at the age of sixty-nine.

see also Dyes.

Thomas M. Zydowsky


McGrayne, Sharon B. (2001). Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Perkin, William Henry

Perkin, William Henry (1860–1929). Chemist. Perkin's father was a distinguished chemist, who discovered a new dyeing process producing mauve from coal-tar, and maintained his own private laboratory. After studying in Germany, Perkin was appointed in 1887 to the chair of chemistry at Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh. In 1892 he moved to Owen's College, Manchester, holding the chair of organic chemistry. Next he moved to the Waynflete chair at Oxford in 1912, where a new laboratory was opened in South Parks. His renown was as a practical experimental chemist and as a remarkable research supervisor.

J. A. Cannon

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