The Colour of Money

••• How William Perkin Dyed for Knowledge


Eager to exploit the commercial possibilities of aniline, businessmen soon sought additional applications for the coal-tar-derived dyes. "The lady's hair is grey, or of a hue not fashionable at the time," the scientist Hugo Schweitzer reported to Perkin, "[but] coal-tar colours will assist her in appearing youthful and gay. In eating the luscious frankfurter, your soul rejoices to see the sanguineous liquid oozing from the meat—alas, coal-tar colours have done it." Further experimentation with aniline led to the discovery of saccharin and Novocain, as well as artificial perfumes that could replicate natural musk, jasmine, and rosewater. By 1906, coal-tar preparations were being incorporated by the Lumière brothers in their pioneering development of color photography.

Even more valuably, the invention of aniline dyes coincided with early investigations into microbiology. Staining cells with mauve and fuchsine made their internal components visible under the microscope, allowing for the identification of DNA, chromosomes, amino acids, and bacteria in tissue samples. In 1882, Robert Koch proved that tuberculosis was caused by a bacillus that he detected using aniline blue; the same blue turned out to be medically useful in the treatment of cyanide poisoning. Other dyes in the 20th century have helped fight diphtheria, pneumonia, leprosy, and cancer. Sold in today's drugstores, the topical disinfectant Mercurochrome (for dabbing on minor cuts and scrapes) is an aniline dye, too.

Perkin's work on mauve had ramifications beyond these material innovations. In his youth, applied chemistry was rarely taught in English schools (Latin and Greek predominated), and only the fledgling Royal College of Chemistry (founded 1845) offered it at the university level. Most people saw no purpose in learning chemistry, because to that date it had produced few real-world results. The idea that researchers, pottering about in their labs with their flasks and spirits, might create anything worthwhile seemed as preposterous as the medieval belief in alchemy. (Curiously enough, Perkin's grandfather was a closet alchemist.) But once Perkin started manufacturing mauve, it was obvious that organic chemistry could be both useful and lucrative. Textile and other industries hired researchers to synthesize an increasing number of artificial substances, giving rise to a need for more trained chemists, which in turn drew more students to the subject. Applied chemistry was firmly established as an academic discipline.

Mauve has come a long way since its origins in a failed experiment—from the fashionable color that matched an empress's eyes to an ingredient in 21st-century chemotherapy. As for Perkin, he was knighted in 1906 and received an honorary degree from Oxford shortly before his death the following year. It's perhaps a good thing that he didn't live to see one of the consequences of his research: A vegetarian, teetotaler, and evangelical churchgoer who donated much of his fortune to charity, Perkin would have been horrified to learn that his advances in organic chemistry led to the formulation of synthetic ammonia—the key component in almost all modern explosives.

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