William Henry Perkin

William Henry Perkin

A photograph that William Henry Perkin took of himself at the age of 14—four years before he discovered the first synthetic dyestuff. CHF Collections.

In 1856, during Easter vacation from London’s Royal College of Chemistry, 18-year-old William Henry Perkin (1838–1907) synthesized mauve, or aniline purple—the first synthetic dyestuff—from chemicals derived from coal tar. Like Friedrich Wöhler’s accidental synthesis of urea, Perkin’s chemical manipulations were designed to produce a quite different product—quinine. His teacher, August W. Hofmann, one of Justus von Liebig’s former students, had remarked on the desirability of synthesizing this antimalarial drug, which at that time was derived solely from the bark of the cinchona tree, by then grown mainly on plantations in southeast Asia. Against Hofmann’s recommendation and with the financial support of his father, a construction contractor, Perkin commercialized his discovery and developed the processes for the production and use of the new dye. In 1857 he opened his factory at Greenford Green, not far from London.

William Henry Perkin. Williams Haynes Portrait Collection, CHF Collections.

William Henry Perkin. Williams Haynes Portrait Collection, CHF Collections.

From this modest beginning grew the highly innovative chemical industry of synthetic dyestuffs and its near relative, the pharmaceutical industry, which improved the quality of life for the general population. These two industries also stimulated the search for a better understanding of the structure of molecules. Perkin, at the age of 36, sold his business so that he could devote himself entirely to research, which included early investigations of the ability of some organic chemicals to rotate plane-polarized light, a property used in considering questions of molecular structure.

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The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@
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