While still a teenaged student, William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered the first synthetic organic dye in history, that of the colour mauve. It was a profitable mistake that demonstrated the enormous possibilities of chemistry, a science that in the mid-nineteenth century had just been born and scarcely had any applications. Here we review how this discovery changed the history of chemistry—in addition to contributing to great advances in other sciences—now that it’s 180 years since Perkin’s birth and he is back in fashion more than ever, with mauve as the colour of the season.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the British Empire was adding colonies in tropical areas, where more and more soldiers were contracting malaria. The only medical remedy that existed at the time was quinine, a natural substance expensive to obtain since it was extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, which only grew in the tropical forests of the Andes (South America). It was urgent to find a more affordable way to obtain quinine and that was to synthesize it artificially in the laboratory. Focused on the task were the young student William Henry Perkin (12 March 1838 – 14 July 1907) and his professor, the celebrated German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann.
During the Easter vacation of 1856, while Hofmann was visiting his family, Perkin tried a new idea in the small laboratory of his house in London: oxidize another known compound (aniline) to obtain quinine. He did not succeed and the experiment left behind a solid blackish precipitate in the beaker. While trying to clean up the result of his mistake with alcohol, Perkin noticed that the material contained a substance with a purplish hue. At the age of only 18, without intending to do so, he had just obtained the world’s first synthetic dye, which today we know by multiple names: aniline purple, mauveine, purple aniline or Perkin’s mallow.
A case of serendipity
As in other great cases of serendipity in the history of science, this discovery was not pure chance. Although luck played an important role, the observant attitude of Perkin, who knew how to see beyond a disappointing result, was more relevant. With the help of his brother and a friend, and under the eye of Professor Hofmann, he conducted new experiments to perfect his method, which he patented in August 1856.
In addition, he decided to market his discovery, demonstrating a great entrepreneurial spirit. He realized that he could replace the expensive natural dyes of plants and molluscs that had been used since Roman times. Before Perkin came along, the only way to obtain mauve clothes was to dye them with natural dyes that were extracted from living creatures. The Phoenicians, for example, had Tyrian purple that they obtained from the mucus of the predatory sea snail Bolinus brandaris. The robes of the senators in ancient Rome were of that colour.
Thanks to Perkin’s discovery, the colour that until then only a few people were able to flaunt (and, of course, the flowers of the common mallow) ended up becoming exclusive no more. A few years after his discovery, mauve garments were being seen everywhere, especially in London and Paris. Queen Victoria added to its popularity when she appeared at the Royal Exhibition of 1862 with a long mauve gown dyed with Perkin’s mauve, which began to be called mauveine, a term that combines the words mauve and aniline.
Revolution in fashion, medicine and the chemical industry
The development of mauveine led to competition between Great Britain, France and Germany for the production of colours, providing a great boost to the chemical industry. Within five years of its appearance, there were 28 dye factories, many of which would become giants in the sector, such as the German company BASF. Meanwhile, the still young chemist undertook intense research on dyes, inks and paints, and also perfected the manufacture of coumarin, one of the first synthetic perfumes, thanks to the so-called Perkin reaction.
By the age of 21, William Henry Perkin was already a millionaire and at 36 he retired to devote himself exclusively to research in organic chemistry. His discoveries went far beyond transforming the world of fashion. As Simond Garfield, author of the book “Mauve” explains, Perkin’s mauve not only meant a revolution in the dye industry, but also in medicine. His works with artificial dyes were essential so that Walther Flemming could colour cells and study chromosomes under a microscope. They also helped Robert Koch, Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1905, to discover the bacillus responsible for tuberculosis, after dyeing the sputum of a patient. What’s more, the development of Perkin’s synthetic dyes was crucial for the studies of Paul Ehrlich, Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908 and a pioneer in chemotherapy research.
Perkin lived to see how his bright lavender dye had medical applications that he would never have imagined, and that would save the lives of thousands of people. Lilac, violet, mauve … any of the names of the colour is far from the scientific name of the dye: 3-amino-2,9-dimethyl-5-phenyl-7- (p-tolylamino) phenazine acetate. This mouthful, little used and difficult to memorize, has been in use since 1994 when the molecular structure of mauveine was finally discovered. Only then was the chemical protagonist of this story accurately identified: a complex organic molecule that rose to fame for its ability to dye the mauve-coloured fabrics that eventually revolutionized the world.