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William Henry Perkin

Updated on December 1, 2016

Sir William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) was an English chemist, who founded the synthetic dye industry and stimulated the development of synthetic organic chemistry. Perkin was born in London on March 12, 1838. In his school days, he was fired to enthusiasm over chemistry through his attendance at lectures given by Michael Faraday. Over his father's protests, young Perkin took up the study of chemistry under A. W. von Hofmann and did research in his home laboratory.

One day, Hofmann speculated as to whether it might be feasible to synthesize the antimalarial drug quinine out of cheap coal-tar chemicals as a starting material. Perkin decided to tackle the project and in 1856 began work during his Easter vacation. He did not succeed in synthesizing quinine, but in the course of his experiments he noted a purplish glint in one of the residues. He added alcohol and obtained a beautiful purple solution. He sent a sample to a dyeing firm. It found that the solution would dye silk well, and returned an enthusiastic report. Perkin patented his process in 1856 and left school. His family contributed capital, and a dye factory was founded. Perkin had to manufacture his own chemicals and design his own equipment, but within six months he was producing what he called aniline purple. English dyers proved rather conservative, but the French adopted the new dye with enthusiasm. They named it mauveine, and the red-purple color came to be called mauve. The dye was so popular that the period became known as the Mauve Decade.

In 1874, Perkin sold his factory and returned to chemical research. He devised an important type of organic chemical reaction now known as the Perkin reaction. Using it, he synthesized coumarin, which has a particularly pleasant odor. This discovery marked the beginning of the synthetic perfume industry. Perkin was knighted in 1906. He died in Sudbury on July 14, 1907.

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