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Perkin, Sir William Henry

PERKIN, SIR WILLIAM HENRY (1838-1907), English chemist, was born in London on the 12th of March 1838. From an early age he determined to adopt chemistry as his profession, although his father, who was a builder, would have preferred him to be an architect. Attending the City of London School he devoted all his spare time to chemistry, and on leaving, in 1853, entered the Royal College of Chemistry, then under the direction of A. W. Hofmann, in whose own research laboratory he was in the course of a year or two promoted to be an assistant. Devoting his evenings to private investigstions in a rough laboratory fitted up at his home, Perkin was fired by some remarks of Hofmann's to undertake the artificial production of quinine. In this attempt he was unsuccessful, but the observations he made in the course of his experiments induced him, early in 1856, to try the effect of treating aniline sulphate with bichromate of potash. The result was a precipitate, aniline black, from which he obtained the colouring matter subsequently known as aniline blue or mauve. He lost no time in bringing this substance before the managers of Pullar's dye-works, Perth, and they expressed a favourable opinion of it, if only it should not prove too expensive in use. Thus encouraged, he took out a patent for his process, and leaving the College of Chemistry, a boy of eighteen, he proceeded, with the aid of his father and brother, to erect works at Greenford Green, near Harrow, for the manufacture of the newly discovered colouring matter, and by the end of 1857 the works were in operation. That date may therefore be reckoned as that of the foundation of the coaltar colour industry, which has since attained such important dimensions in Germany, however, rather than in England, the country where it originated. Perkin also had a large share in the introduction of artificial alizarin (q.v.), the red dye of the madder root. C. Graebe and C. T. Liebermann in 1868 prepared that substance synthetically from anthracene, but their process was not practicable on a large scale, and it was left to him to patent a method that was commercially valuable. This he did in 1869, thus securing for the Greenford Green works a monopoly of alizarin manufacture for several years. About the same time he also carried out a series of investigations into kindred substances, such as anthrapurpurin. About 1874 he abandoned the manufacture of coal-tar colours and devoted himself exclusively to research in pure chemistry, and among the discoveries he made in this field was that of the reaction known by his name, depending on the condensation of aldehydes with fatty acids (see CINNAMIC ACID). Later still he engaged in the study of the relations between chemical constitution and rotation of the plane of polarization in a magnetic field, and enunciated a law expressing the variation of such rotation in bodies belonging to homologous series. For this work he was in 1889 awarded a Davy medal by the Royal Society, which ten years previously had bestowed upon him a Royal medal in recognition of his investigations in the coal-tar colours. The Chemical Society, of which he became secretary in 1869 and president in 1883, presented him with its Longstaff medal in 1889, and in 1890 he received the Albert medal of the Society of Arts. In 1906 an international celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his invention of mauve was held in London, and in the same year he was made a knight. He died near Harrow on the 14th of July 1907.

His eldest son, WILLIAM HENRY PERKIN, who was born at Sudbury, near Harrow, on the 17th of June 1860, and was educated at the City of London School, the Royal College of Science, and the universities of Wiirzburg and Munich, became professor of chemistry at the Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh, in 1887, and professor of organic chemistry at Owens College, Manchester, in 1892. His chief researches deal with the polymethylene compounds, the alkaloids, in particular hydrastine and berberine, and the camphors and terpenes (q.v.). He received the Davy medal from the Royal Society in 1904.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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