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Topic section: Mauve as Science
TOPIC SECTION:
Mauve as science
During the Easter break in 1856, William Henry Perkin - an 18-year-old chemistry student in his second year at the Royal College of Ch
Image: Sir William Henry Perkin, English chemist, and his wife Jemima, c 1860.
Sir William Henry Perkin, English chemist, and his wife Jemima, c 1860.
Credit: Science & Society Picture Library
emistry in London - was doing experiments at his family home in Shadwell in the East End of London. His professor was Wilhelm Hofmann, a German chemist who was very interested in the chemicals that could be made from coal tar. Another Hofmann student, Charles Mansfield, had been working on the extraction of benzene from coal tar, but was horribly burnt when his still caught fire in February 1855 and he died nine days later.

Perkin hoped he could make the well-known antimalarial drug qu

Although this also produced a black tar, Perkin managed to extract a lovely purple colour from this mess

inine by taking one new product of coal-tar chemistry - a compound called allyl toluidine - and converting it into quinine by adding two oxygen atoms. In trying to do this, Perkin was attempting something that was to preoccupy organic chemists for the next century and more: to make products hitherto obtained from exotic and expensive plants and animals from coal, petroleum or natural gas.

His efforts to make quinine, however, only produced a black tar. He then decided to try the same reaction with aniline, another coal-tar chemical that was similar to allyl to
Image: Crystal structure model of Vitamin B12 made for the X-ray crystallographer Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1958

Crystal structure model of Vitamin B12 made for the X-ray crystallographer Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1958
Credit: Science & Society Picture Library

luidine. Although this also produced a black tar, Perkin managed to extract a lovely purple colour from this mess. He had made the first synthetic dye to be commercially successful, which he called Tyrian purple after the famous colour of the Ancients. With his father and his elder brother, Perkin set up a factory in Greenford Green, west London, to make Tyrian purple, which was renamed mauve in 1859.

Although Perkin had failed to synthesise quinine - a complicated compound which was only made synthetically in 1944 - he later succeeded in synthesising coumarin, the active ingredient in the woodland herb sweet woodruff. By 1886 a German chemist, Albert Ladenburg, had synthesised coniine, the poisonous ingredient in hemlock. During the 20th century, chemists synthesised increasingly complex natural products in the laboratory, including vitamin B12, made by Robert Burns Woodward and Albert Eschenmoser in 1976.

 
 
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Topic section: Mauve as Innovation
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Perkin’s mauve became the first commercially successful dye to be produced. However by the end of 19th century it was Germany, not Britain, who was leading in the industry.  > more

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Topic section: Mauve as icon
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In order to revive Britain’s reputation in the dye industry, the story of Perkin’s mauve was resurrected and promoted as a success during the anniversary of its discovery.  > more
 
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