William Henry Perkin


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.


Thomas M. Zydowsky


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

Internet Resources

"Sir William Henry Perkin." Chemical Heritage Foundation. Available from http://www.chemheritage.org/perkin .

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