Throughout his life, William Henry Perkin remained a humble man. At a banquet held in his honour at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City on 6 October 1906, his primary emotion seems to have been surprise. ‘I can only say’, he told the assembled delegates, ‘how greatly honoured I feel and how gratified I am at being present here tonight, and meeting so many fellow workers in the field of science.’
In contrast to his humility were his achievements. At the time of his death, nine months later, he had amassed a fortune equivalent to £9m today. He’d discovered a new branch of chemistry; one that was to prove immensely fruitful. His legacy includes the first synthetic perfume ingredient, cinnamic acid, which is also used in flavouring, and, of course, a vivid cascade of aniline dyes– richly hued dye stuffs that changed the way textiles were coloured forever.
His original discovery was accidental. In the spring of 1856, Perkin was 18 years old, home for the Easter holidays in a small house in Limehouse, East London. At the time, his guiding obsession was quinine, a treatment for malaria made from tree bark and extremely valuable. Perkin was trying to make a synthetic version using coal tar, an unloved by product of the fuel industry. On this day, as on so many others before it, he found that his experiments resulted not in a colourless liquid, like quinine, but a reddish-brown sludge. Determined to make the best of a bad job, Perkin continued to work on this sludge and found to his astonishment that he managed to create a beaker full of jewel-bright purple liquid. More intriguing still, this liquid proved to stain cloth indelibly, and didn’t fade when exposed to soap or sunlight. It was, in short, an incomparable dye.
‘Mauve’, as Perkin later called it, named after the French word for a flower with purple petals, was the first aniline dye and one of the first to be made entirely in a laboratory. Dyers, as a result, were suspicious. They were used to using traditional ingredients: scarlets from cochineal scale insects or madder root, purples from lichen, yellows from weld and blue from indigo-bearing plants. Luck, however, was clearly on Perkin’s side. At the wedding of one of her daughters, Queen Victoria wore a silk gown dyed with Perkin’s mauve and trimmed with silver lace. No one had ever seen anything like it before and it caused a sensation. By the following year, it was the only colour to be seen in. Europe had succumbed, according to one magazine, to a serious bout of the ‘mauve measles’.
It’s not known how Perkin felt about being accused of starting one epidemic when really trying to cure another, but perhaps we can guess: humbled. He never managed, after all, to synthesise quinine.
This article appeared in ELLE Decoration June 2020
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