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Perkin, Sir William Henry

chemical organic research chemistry

(1838–1907) British chemist: made first synthetic dye and founded organic chemical industry.

Young Perkin’s interest in chemistry began in a familiar way. He records that when he was about 12, ‘a young friend showed me some chemical experiments and the wonderful power of substances to crystallize in definite forms especially struck me . . . and the possibility also of making new discoveries impressed me very much. . . . I immediately commenced to accumulate bottles of chemicals and make experiments.’ Despite his father’s opposition Perkin entered the Royal College of Science to study chemistry at 15. At 17 he was assisting there, and also doing some research at home. Hofmann had mentioned the desirability of synthesizing quinine. Perkin, at home for Easter in 1856, tried to make quinine by oxidizing aniline. The idea was quite unsound, but Perkin noticed that the dark product contained a purple substance, later named mauve, that dyed silk. At age 18, helped by his father, he set up a small factory to make his ‘mauve’ and, later, other synthetic dyes based on coal tar products. Remarkably, they dealt successfully with the novel problems of chemical manufacture and marketing, although little commercial equipment or material was available (they even had to make nitric acid, and re-purify coal tar benzene) and their skills were those of the 18-year-old boy and his retired builder father. Young Perkin even maintained his academic research, solving by 1860 some important problems on organic acids and synthesizing the amino acid glycine. Mauve manufacture went on for 10 years; it was used for textiles and the Victorian 1d lilac postage stamp. Later Perkin manufactured magenta and alizarin dyes. By age 36, he was able to retire as a dyemaker and pursue his research exclusively. He developed a general synthesis of aromatic acids (the Perkin reaction) and studied magnetic rotatory power.

Chemical interests seem to run in the family; a grandfather had a laboratory in his Yorkshire farmhouse and Perkin’s three sons were all distinguished organic chemists. His own venture began the synthetic organic chemical industry, in which leadership soon passed to Germany. Academic organic chemistry was maintained in Britain especially by his son Professor W H Perkin Jr (1860–1929) and his pupils at Edinburgh, Manchester and Oxford.

Synthesis of quinine was not achieved until 1944, by and W von E Doering (1917– ).

Perkins, James, Jr.(1953–) - Mayor, Becomes Politically Active, Chronology, Perkins’ Plans for Selma [next]

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