William Henry Perkin Biography (1838-1907)


William Perkin is considered to be the father of the synthetic dye and perfume industries.

Perkin was born in London, England, and as a child attended the City of London School. There he came into contact with Michael Faraday who fostered his fledgling fascination with chemistry. In 1853, Perkin entered the Royal Collegeof Chemistry where, at seventeen, he was named an assistant to the school'sdirector, a renowned German chemist named August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Although Hofmann was a brilliant chemist, he was awkward with laboratory work and depended on talented assistants to help him in his research on coal tar and itsderivatives.

It was under Hofmann's tutelage in 1856 that Perkin experienced his first major success. That year, Perkin spent his Easter vacation attempting to synthesize quinine from aniline, a coal-tar derivative. Although he failed to produce artificial quinine, the results of his experiment determined the course ofhis career. As part of his process, Perkin mixed aniline with potassium dichromate and alcohol, which yielded a purple liquid. Thinking it might be usefulas a dye, Perkin named the liquid aniline purple and sent a sample toa silk dyeing firm. When the company sent back for more dye, it became clearthat this was a lucrative business opportunity so Perkin convinced his father and brother to invest in a company to produce the new dye. Soon the companybegan marketing aniline purple, which became known as mauve (from the Frenchword for the plant previously used to make violet).

While his family tended to the practical aspect of the business, Perkin headed up the company's research department. His experiments led to the development of more dyes, including violets and rosanilines. Over the next few years, he introduced several other colors into his company line: aniline red (1859),aniline black (1863), and alkalate magenta (1864). In 1868, Perkin used the work of two German chemists, Carl Graebe (1841-1927) and Carl Liebermann (1842-1914), as a basis for synthesizing alizarin, the chemical component of the madder plant essential in dye making. While Graebe and Liebermann had developed a workable synthesis process, it was too expensive to be of practical use.Perkin came up with a cost-effective production version of his fellow chemists' process, and by 1871, his company was producing two hundred twenty tons ofalizarin annually. Within a short time, Perkin's curiosity and drive paid off as his synthetic dyes replaced natural dyes all over the world.

Perkin's further experimentation led to his discovery of a method for changing the structure of organic compounds on a molecular level. Using this process, known as the "Perkin synthesis," he produced a coumarin, a synthetic perfume which has been described as smelling like fresh hay or vanilla. Although hetechnically retired at age thirty-six, he launched a second career in the synthetic perfume business. He later teamed up with B.F. Duppa to research anddevelop other aspects of the synthetic fragrance field. Their accomplishmentsinclude the development of a process for producing glycine, racemic acid, and tartaric acid, as well as significant research into the similarities between tartaric acid and maleic acids. In 1889, Perkin received the Davy medal ofthe Royal Society, and the British government recognized Perkin's contribution to science, industry, and his country by knighting him in 1906. He died oneyear later, on July 14, in Sudbury, England.

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