In 1856, an industrious student at London’s Royal College of Chemistry had spent three years trying to develop a synthetic substitute for the anti-malarial drug quinine. When yet another failed experiment left nothing but sludge in the bottom of his beakers, William Henry Perkin set himself to yet another round of cleanup. But adding alcohol to the mix left a bright purple stain on the glass, and “mauveine” was born.
Until the discovery of synthetic pigments such as mauveine, dyes had been made from natural materials that could be both expensive and time-consuming to produce. Purple, for example, had been extracted from… thousands of tiny snails. But mauveine was cheaper to produce, lasted longer without fading, and could be made faster and in significantly larger quantities. Perkin’s discovery at the height of the Industrial Revolution was perfectly timed.
Hiding this “failure” from his professor, Perkin worked with his brother and a third partner to determine if his mistake could be reliably replicated. They were able to do so, patented the process, and established a dyeworks in London.
Providentially, the purple was promoted by the propitious attentions of the fashionable Empress Eugenie of France. She decided the hue matched her eyes and launched the shade into infamy. Then in 1858, Queen Victoria wore a mauve dress to the wedding of the Princess Royal. She wore another to the 1862 Great Exhibition. A penny stamp was printed in mauve. The color’s place in history was set.
Perkin went on to develop other synthetic colors, such as Perkin’s Green and Britannia Violet, as well as a process by which synthetic perfumes could be made. He developed a dye fixative for cotton, discovered even more aniline dyes, and later found a way to synthesize the brilliant red alizarin. He was knighted for his efforts, and all three of his sons went on to become chemists as well.
A Purple Prize
There is now even a prize named for this precocious student: the Perkin Medal. It is awarded annually to a scientist who lives in the U.S. in recognition of “innovation in applied chemistry resulting in outstanding commercial development.” Basically, for developing something cool you might use at home. The 2017 winner was Ann E. Weber, PhD, whose “research interests include the design and synthesis of ligands for G-protein coupled receptors, ion channels and enzymes.” A number of her development candidates include treatment for Type 2 diabetes.
And that synthetic quinine? Was finally developed in 1944, but cinchona bark is still the most “economically practical” source. Because nobody wants malaria, even if they DO look fabulous in purple.
As an added nerdy bonus, the dyes aren’t just fashionable, but useful. They also were used to stain previously-invisible microbes and bacteria, making it possible to identify scary stuff like anthrax and tuberculosis in the (relative) safety of the lab.
But why do we care about (synthetic) purple today, of all days? Because William Henry Perkin was born on this day in 1838. So happy birthday, you inadvertent revolutionizer of fashion! I lift a gin and tonic in your honor. (Here’s why.)