William Perkin had become rich and he retired at 36 to devote his life to good works. This is definitely not the end of the story, however. What William had done by his chance discovery was to unleash a whole world of colour dyes. Mauve, made from the alkali found in coal tar called Aniline, was only the start. Many more colours made from aniline dyes were discovered and consequently produced by others eager to follow in Perkin's footsteps - violets, blues, reds, greens - all exquisite, brilliant and beautiful, all far cheaper than the animal and vegetable dyes used hitherto. Even women and men with a more modest purse could now afford to dress in eye-catching colour, so much so that a pedantic French historian is on record as remarking on how insufferable was the glare of the strollers in Hyde Park!

The story continues - Perkin's researches also produced the simulated smells of rose, violet, jasmine and musk. Men and women could smell, as well as look, good. But, more important, his chance discovery greatly affected the advance of medicine. At the start of the nineteenth century, doctors and scientists had no idea that bacteria caused illness. It was the French man, Louis Pasteur, who first made this link. By the end of the nineteenth century, the German chemical industry was manufacturing many synthetic coal tar dyes. Robert Koch was able to use these dyes to stain and to see hitherto invisible microbes. He identified the germs that caused anthrax, tuberculosis and cholera.

Another German, Paul Ehrlich, started experimenting to see if coal tar dyes could be swallowed and used as 'magic bullets' to kill specific bacteria. Gerhard Domagk, a follower of Ehrlich, discovered that a red dye called Prontosil killed the Streptococcus microbe that causes blood poisoning when he tested it on mice! His own daughter suddenly became dangerously ill with blood poisoning after pricking her finger with a dirty needle. Domagk had no choice - he gave his beloved daughter the Prontosil, as yet untested on humans. She rapidly recovered - although her skin turned an interesting shade of red for a time!

Exquisite colours, beautiful smells, great medical advances - all of these started with the chance discovery of the colour MAUVE.

For more details of this fascinating story visit

Also the book: MAUVE: How one man invented a colour that changed the world' By Simon Garfield


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