Sir William Henry Perkin

Sponsor: William H. Reusch

At age 15, Perkin became laboratory assistant to A. W. von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry and three years later, while attempting to synthesize quinine, oxidized aniline with dichromate and obtained instead aniline black from which he extracted a purple dye which he named mauve. A year later, against Hofmann's advice and with the help of his father and brother, he built a factory to produce the dye. This was the start of the coal-tar industry in Britain. At age 20, Perkin (with B. F. Duppa) synthesized glycine, the first laboratory preparation of an amino acid. Two years later, he synthesized tartaric acid. The preparation of unsaturated acids (i.e., cinnamic acid) from an aromatic aldehyde, an acid anhydride and a salt of the corresponding acid, is now known as the Perkin Reaction; he used it, in 1868, to manufacture the first synthetic perfume, coumarin. The Perkin Medal, the highest award given by the Society of Chemical Industry, honors his name to this day, as do the organic chemistry journals of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Perkin Transactions. This portrait, painted by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope, shows Perkin holding a skein dyed with mauve; the dye, a member of the safranine class, is no longer used. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Location in chemistry building:

Third Floor; West Wing North Wall; Sequence 2


National Portrait Gallery (London)