Sir William Henry Perkin

Sir William Henry Perkin CLS 1851-53

The Higgs-Hopkins Society, named after our two Old Citizen Nobel Science Laureates, decided to follow in the footsteps of another famous OC, William Perkin, by making his celebrated dye, mauveine. The Society felt it was a rite of passage that all CLS Chemists should emulate their renowned predecessor’s work of over 160 years ago.

Historical background
Sir William Henry Perkin (1838–1907, Old Citizen) created the first synthetic dye, aniline purple, or mauveine, in 1856. Perkin was a student at the City of London School, and became immersed in the study of chemistry. Perkin's teacher, Thomas Hall, encouraged him to attend a series of lectures given by the eminent scientist Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution.
Perkin entered the Royal College of Chemistry (now part of Imperial College) in 1853, at the age of 15. The Royal College of Chemistry was headed by the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Perkin caught Hofmann's attention, and within two years he became Hofmann's assistant.

In 1856, the only viable medical treatment for malaria was quinine. Demand for the drug was surpassing the available supply, which was taken from the bark of the cinchona tree native to South America. Hofmann appreciated the desirability of a synthetic substitute for quinine and it appears Perkin was motivated to please his mentor.

During his school holidays in 1856, Perkin experimented synthesising quinine from aniline, which was readily available, in his home laboratory. Despite his skills and patience, quinine eluded him and he only managed to produce a mysterious dark sludge.
Perkin's scientific training, no doubt a product of his fine CLS schooling, prompted him to investigate the substance further. Adding potassium dichromate and alcohol to the aniline at various stages of the synthesis, he created a deep purple solution.
Bringing to mind Louis Pasteur's words, "chance favours only the prepared mind”, Perkin saw the potential of his unexpected find. Mauve became the de rigeur fashion statement of the time and an industry was born.

Perkin discovered and marketed other synthetic dyes, such as Britannia Violet and Perkin's Green, and moved his laboratories to Greenford. Local lore has it that the colour of the nearby Grand Union Canal changed from week to week depending on the activity at Perkin's dyeworks.

The synthesis
The Higgs-Hopkins Society repeated the experiments Perkin performed 160 years ago, using more modern laboratory equipment and achieved some quite wonderful results. They tested the fastness of the dye (how easily it bonds to material) and the quality of the colour on some silk and merino wool swatches purloined from Mrs Dharamshi’s wardrobe.


Sir William Henry Perkin created the first synthetic dye, aniline purple, or mauveine, in 1856