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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

William Henry Perkin

William Henry Perkin was an English chemist and inventor, who developed the first synthetic dye.

William Henry Perkin

William Perkin was born in the East End of London on March 12, 1838, the youngest of the seven children of George Perkin, a successful builder. His mother, Sarah, was of Scottish descent but moved to east London as a child.

Young William Perkin's interest in chemistry began in a familiar way. He records that when he was about 12, "a young friend showed me some chemical experiments and the wonderful power of substances to crystallise in definite forms especially struck me... and the possibility also of making new discoveries impressed me very much.... I immediately commenced to accumulate bottles of chemicals and make experiments."

Despite his father's opposition Perkin entered the Royal College of Science to study chemistry at the precocious age of 15. It is now part of Imperial College London.

Around his 18th birthday, Perkin was given a challenge by his professor, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, to synthesize quinine. At home for Easter in 1856, Perkin tried to make quinine by oxidizing aniline, an organic chemical compound produced in two stages from benzene. The idea was quite unsound, but one day using alcohol to clean up some chemical residue an intense purple color suddenly appeared before fading rapidly to a less brilliant purple.

At that time, purple dye was one of the priciest, so Perkin worked out how to produce his new color and use it to dye silk. This was the first synthetic organic chemical dye.

Letter from Perkin's son, with a sample of dyed silk

The color was originally called aniline purple or Tyrian purple, the name of an ancient natural dye derived from mollusks.The following year, the dye attained the name mauve in England via the French name for the mallow flower, and chemists later called it mauveine.

Helped by his father, the teenage Perkin set up a small factory to make his 'mauve' and, later, other synthetic dyes based on coal tar products. Remarkably, the teenager and his retired builder father launched the synthetic dye industry, dealing successfully with the novel problems of chemical manufacture and marketing, although little commercial equipment or material was available (they even had to make nitric acid, and re-purify coal tar benzene).

Young Perkin even maintained his academic research, solving by 1860 some important problems on organic acids and synthesizing the amino acid glycine.

Mauve manufacture went on for 10 years; it was used for textiles and the Victorian penny lilac postage stamp. By 1870, its great demand succumbed to newer synthetic colors in the synthetic dye industry.

By age 36, Perkin was able to retire as a dyemaker and pursue his research exclusively. He developed a general synthesis of aromatic acids (the Perkin reaction) and studied magnetic rotatory power.

Perkin was knighted in 1906, and in the same year was awarded the first Perkin Medal, established to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his discovery of mauveine.

Perkin died on July 14, 1907 of pneumonia and other complications resulting from a burst appendix. He is buried in the grounds of Christchurch, Harrow, in South-eastern England.

Perkin's Gravestone. By Rzepa at English Wikipedia,

Today, the Perkin Medal is widely acknowledged as the highest honor in American industrial chemistry and has been awarded annually by the American section of the Society of Chemical Industry to many inspiring and gifted chemists.

Source Europress Family Encyclopedia 1999.

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