William Henry Perkin

For William Henry Perkin Jr., the son of William Henry Perkin, see William Henry Perkin, Jr.
Sir William Henry Perkin

William Perkin (1838–1907)
Born 12 March 1838 (1838-03-12)
East End of London, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Died 14 July 1907 (1907-07-15) (aged 69)
Sudbury, London
Nationality British
Fields Chemistry
Known for Aniline dye, mauveine, Perkin triangle
Influences August Wilhelm von Hofmann
Notable awards Royal Medal (1879)
Davy Medal (1889)
Albert Medal (1890)
Perkin Medal (1906)

Sir William Henry Perkin, FRS (12 March 1838 – 14 July 1907) was an English chemist best known for his accidental discovery, at the age of 18, of the first aniline dye, mauveine. In trying to synthesise quinine, the treatment for malaria, Henry failed; but succeeded in the field of dyes.

Early years

William Perkin was born in the East End of London,[1] the youngest of the seven children of George Perkin, a successful carpenter. His mother, Sarah, was of Scottish descent but moved to east London as a child.[2] He was baptised in the parish church of St Paul's, Shadwell, which had been connected to such luminaries as James Cook, Jane Randolph Jefferson (mother of Thomas Jefferson) and John Wesley.

At the age of 14, Perkin attended the City of London School, where he was taught by Thomas Hall, who fostered his scientific talent and encouraged him to pursue a career in chemistry.[2]

The accidental discovery of mauveine

In 1853, at the precocious age of 15, Perkin entered the Royal College of Chemistry in London (now part of Imperial College London), where he began his studies under August Wilhelm von Hofmann.[3] At this time, chemistry was still in a quite primitive state: although the atomic theory was accepted, the major elements had been discovered, and techniques to analyse the proportions of the elements in many compounds were in place, it was still a difficult proposition to determine the arrangement of the elements in compounds. Hofmann had published a hypothesis on how it might be possible to synthesise quinine, an expensive natural substance much in demand for the treatment of malaria.[2] Perkin, who had by then become one of Hofmann's assistants, embarked on a series of experiments to try to achieve this end. During the Easter vacation in 1856, while Hofmann was visiting his native East End, Perkin performed some further experiments in the crude laboratory in his apartment on the top floor of his home in Cable Street in east London. It was here that he made his great accidental discovery: that aniline could be partly transformed into a crude mixture which when extracted with alcohol produced a substance with an intense purple colour.[3] Perkin, who had an interest in painting and photography, immediately became enthusiastic about this result and carried out further trials with his friend Arthur Church and his brother Thomas. Since these experiments were not part of the work on quinine which had been assigned to Perkin, the trio carried them out in a hut in Perkin's garden, so as to keep them secret from Hofmann.

They satisfied themselves that they might be able to scale up production of the purple substance and commercialise it as a dye, which they called mauveine. Their initial experiments indicated that it dyed silk in a way which was stable when washed or exposed to light. They sent some samples to a dye works in Perth, Scotland, and received a very promising reply from the general manager of the company, Robert Pullar. Perkin filed for a patent in August 1856, when he was still only 18.[3] At the time, all dyes used for colouring cloth were natural substances, many of which were expensive and labour-intensive to extract. Furthermore, many lacked stability, or fastness. The colour purple, which had been a mark of aristocracy and prestige since ancient times, was especially expensive and difficult to produce — the dye used, known as Tyrian purple, was made from the glandular mucus of certain molluscs. Its extraction was variable and complicated, and so Perkin and his brother realised that they had discovered a possible substitute whose production could be commercially successful.[2]

Perkin could not have chosen a better time or place for his discovery: England was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, largely driven by advances in the production of textiles; the science of chemistry had advanced to the point where it could have a major impact on industrial processes; and coal tar, the major source of his raw material, was an abundant by-product of the process for making coal gas and coke.[4]

Having invented the dye, Perkin was still faced with the problems of raising the capital for producing it, manufacturing it cheaply, adapting it for use in dyeing cotton, gaining acceptance for it among commercial dyers, and creating public demand for it. However, he was active in all of these areas: he persuaded his father to put up the capital, and his brothers to partner him in the creation of a factory; he invented a mordant for cotton; he gave technical advice to the dyeing industry; and he publicised his invention of the dye. Public demand was increased when a similar colour was adopted by Queen Victoria in England and by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, in France, and when the crinoline or hooped-skirt, whose manufacture used a large quantity of cloth, became fashionable. Everything seemed to fall into place by dint of hard work, with a little luck, too. Perkin became rich.[2]

After the discovery of mauveine, many new aniline dyes appeared (some discovered by Perkin himself), and factories producing them were constructed across Europe.

In Popular Culture

This discovery was the subject of a question on the 2012 season of Eggheads (TV series).

Later years

Blue plaque in Cable Street.

William Perkin continued active research in organic chemistry for the rest of his life: he discovered and marketed other synthetic dyes, including Britannia Violet and Perkin's Green; he discovered ways to make coumarin, one of the first synthetic perfume raw materials, and cinnamic acid. (The reaction used to make the latter became known as the Perkin reaction.)[4] Local lore has it that the colour of the nearby Grand Union Canal changed from week to week depending on the activity at Perkin's Greenford dyeworks. In 1869, Perkin found a method for the commercial production from anthracene of the brilliant red dye alizarin, which had been isolated and identified from madder root some forty years earlier in 1826 by the French chemist Pierre Robiquet, simultaneously with purpurin, another red dye of lesser industrial interest, but the German chemical company BASF patented the same process one day before he did.[3] During the next decade, the new German Empire was rapidly eclipsing Britain as the centre of Europe's chemical industry. By the 1890s, Germany had a near-monopoly on the business and Perkin was compelled to sell off his holdings and retire.

Perkin's Gravestone


Perkin died in 1907 of pneumonia and other complications resulting from a burst appendix. He is buried in the grounds of Christchurch, Harrow, UK.[5]


Perkin married Jemima Harriet, the daughter of John Lissett, in 1859, which resulted in two sons, (William Henry Perkin, Jr. and Arthur George Perkin). Perkin's second marriage was in 1866, to Alexandrine Caroline, daughter of Helman Mollwo, which resulted in one son (Frederick Mollwo Perkin) and four daughters. All three sons became chemists.[5]

Honours, awards and commemorations

Perkin received many honours in his lifetime. In June 1866, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1879, received their Royal Medal and, in 1889, their Davy Medal.[6] He was knighted in 1906, and in the same year was awarded the first Perkin Medal, established to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his discovery of mauveine.[3] Today, the Perkin Medal is widely acknowledged as the highest honour in American industrial chemistry and has been awarded annually by the American section of the Society of Chemical Industry to many inspiring and gifted chemists.

Perkin was a Liveryman of the Leathersellers' Company for 46 years and was elected Master of the Company for the year 1896–97; his father and grandfather had also been Liverymen of the same Company.[5]

Today blue plaques mark the sites of Perkin's home in Cable Street, by the junction with King David Lane, and the Perkin factory in Greenford.

William Perkin High School

In 2013 the William Perkin Church of England High School opened in Greenford, Middlesex. The school is operated by the Twyford Church of England Academies Trust (which also operates Twyford Church of England High School). The school is named after William Perkin, and has adopted a mauve (purple) uniform and colour scheme, in tribute to his discovery of Mauveine.[7]


Blue plaque in Greenford, near the Grand Union Canal. Replaced in 2006.
  1. At 3 King David Lane, off Cable Street, Shadwell: Baptisms Solemnised in the Parish of Saint Paul, Shadwell, in the County of Middlesex, in the Year 1838, page 181.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography (2003). Accessed 18 March 2008.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 edition. Accessed 18 March 2008.
  4. 1 2 Michigan State University, Department of Chemistry website. Accessed 18 March 2008.
  5. 1 2 3 The Leathersellers' Review 2005–06, pp 12–14
  6. "Library and Archive catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 8 November 2010.
  7. The history of Perkin and Mauveine is oulined on the school's website here.

Further reading

External links

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