Perkin, William Henry, Jr.

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(b. Sudbury, Middlesex, England, 17 June 1860; d. Oxford, England, 17 September 1929)

organic chemistry.

Perkin was the eldest son of William Henry Perkin, the pioneer of synthetic dyestuffs, and Jemima Lissett. He studied at the Royal College of Chemistry in London and then under Johannes Wislicenus at the University of Wurzburg (1880–1882) and Adolf von Baeyer at the University of Munich (1882–1886). Soon after his return to Britain, he married, became professor of chemistry at the new Heriot-Watt College in Edinburgh (1887), and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1890). In 1892 he succeeded Cart Schorlemmer in the chair of organic chemistry at Owens College in Manchester. Follwing the retirement (1912) of William Odling from the Waynflete professorship, Perkin moved to Oxford to take charge of an almost moribund department, which, in spite of the stringencies of World war I, he quickly trans formed.

Perkin was much influenced by the personality of von Baeyer, and he himself became almost the archetype of a German professor of the best sort—cultured (he was an accomplished musician), fond of walking holidays in the Alps, and devoted to a rather narrow field of research, which nevertheless infused and inspired all his teaching. He was a skilled practical worker, and at no time in his life did he desert the laboratory for long. As a young man in Germany he made the first derivatives of cyclopropane and cyclobutane, thus disproving a widely held opinion that only carbon rings of five or six members could exist. Von Baeyer subsequently used these results in his “strain theory.” Perkin’s later work was concerned almost entirely with the elucidation of the structures of natural products by degradation and synthesis. He and his students worked on camphor and the terpenes; the natural dyertuffs brazilin and haematoxylin; and a long series of alkaloids, including berberine, harmine, cryptopine, strychnine, and brucine.

When Perkin died complaints were voiced that he had never been given a Nobel Prize. His fundamental shortcoming, however, was that he always applied himself to problems with well-defined solutions, which he studied by established techniques. His solutions, when found, were incorporated into chemistry with little remark. Consequently, he is now less well remembered than his colleagues and brothers-in-law, Lapworth and Kipping, who preferred to break fresh ground.


I. Original Works. Perkin wrote more than 200 papers, mostly with collaboratorsm and a number of text-books, of which the most successful was Organic Chemistry (London, 1894; 2nd ed., 1929), written with F. S. Kipping.

II. Secondary Literature. The chemical Society has published and elaborate obituary entitled The Life and work of Professor William Henry Perkin (London, 1932), which contains a personal memoir by A. J. Greenaway and accounts of Perkin’s scientific work by his former coleagues J. E. Thorpe and R. Robinson.

Obituary notices are in Chemistry and Industry, 48 (1929), 1008–1012; Nature, 124 (1929), 623–627; and Proceedings of the Royal Society, 130A (1930), i-xii. Perkin is also noticed in J. R. H. Weaver, ed., Dictionary of National Biography 1922–1930 (London, 1967), 665–667.

W. V. Farrar