In 1856, in a makeshift chemistry lab in his apartment, 18-year-old Perkin and his professor, August William von Hofmann, had spent the previous three years trying to find a way to make quinine, a chemical substance found in the bark of the cinchona tree. Quinine was the best treatment for malaria at the time.
Due to the extensive extraction process from the bark, the medicine was expensive. Hofmann wanted to find a cheaper way of producing this lifesaving medicine in the lab.
However, the project wasn’t going well. And after yet another unsuccessful attempt at creating quinine, the story goes that Perkin was cleaning out a beaker when he noticed that when the leftover dark brown sludge was diluted with alcohol, it left a bright, rich fuchsia-purple stain on the glass. Along with being a brilliant chemist, Perkin was also a painter, so he immediately saw the potential for the vivid purple dye. To keep his accidental discovery to himself, he moved his work to a garden shed, and later that same year, filed for a patent on a dye he called mauveine.
Mauveine was used as the first synthetic dye for cloth. Before this discovery, to create a colorful fabric in the mid-1800s, the color had to be extracted from something in nature, like berries, beetle’s exoskeleton, or bat guano. At the time, to create purple in fabrics, mollusk mucus was used—which was difficult and expensive to obtain. Perkin’s discovery was a cheaper, richer color, and a more permanent stain alternative for colorful fabrics.
Perkin didn’t waste this accidental opportunity. After receiving his patent, he opened a dyeworks shop in London. Perkins timing could not have been better as Britain was thriving in a booming textile industry at the time. His business grew even more when Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie of France started wearing garments dyed with mauvine. Perkins didn’t stop at purple (or mauve) though. He continued to invent other synthetic colors like Perkin’s Green (a turquoise-like hue) and another shade of purple, Britannia Violet. He also co-discovered a way to synthesize the pigment alizarin, also known as alizarin crimson, which is a blood-red staple for many painters.
After passing in 1907, Perkin is remembered not only by his bright hues, but by a prestigious chemistry prize—The Perkin Medal. It is awarded to a chemist each year whose work has made a significant impact in a commercial or household application. Past winners include Carl Djerassi for his creation of the first oral contraception, and Ann E. Weber, a former Merck scientist celebrated for her work in pharmaceuticals.
But don’t worry about Perkin’s initial quinine experiment. Two American chemists, R.B. Woodward and W.E. Doering, were able to synthesize the malaria medicine in 1944. However, cinchona bark is still the most practical, economical source.
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