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How Malaria Gave Us Mauve

Tropical diseases and coal tar have a lot to do with brightly-colored clothing

You can thank William Perkin for that garish dress your best friend will make you wear at her wedding. (Radius Images/Corbis )
smithsonian.com

Every once in a while the color mauve has a moment, whether it’s on Kylie Jenner’s lips or the Philippines’ new 100-piso banknotes. But the color’s origins are linked to something that seems far more random—malaria. It all started when an 18-year-old made a big mistake that, unbeknownst to him, would change the world.

The young adult in question was William Perkin, a chemistry student on the hunt for artificial quinine. Today, the compound is more familiar as an ingredient in tonic water, but it is also used to treat malaria. At the time, it was extremely costly to obtain quinine from its natural source, the cinchona tree in South America. As the British empire expanded into more tropical territories, more and more Britons contracted malaria—meaning that quinine was, in the words of the London Science Museum, “a tool of 19th-century colonialism.”

Britain clearly needed a source of cheap quinine to help colonists, but a synthetic source had evaded scientists. And that’s where coal comes in. In 1856, chemist named August Hoffman, Perkin’s boss, wondered if waste products from coal tar—a byproduct of coal gas production—might help synthesize quinine. At the time, coal was the substance that fueled the Industrial Revolution, lit England’s cities and produced tons of toxic waste that people simply threw into nearby waterways and forgot about.

Not Hoffman: He put his promising young student on the task of somehow transforming the byproduct into quinine and went on vacation. But things didn’t go so well for Perkin. As Dan Fagin writes in his book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, Perkin’s home experiments with substances like toluene failed. His attempts to turn allyl-toluene into quinine only resulted in “a reddish-black powder, not the medicine he was expecting to see.” Perkin tried again with another byproduct called aniline, but all he came up with was a test tube filled with black goop.

But that goop ended up changing the world. It turned out that it stained the test tube—and Perkin’s clothing—purple. And it wouldn’t wash out. Perkin immediately realized that he had created the first synthetic dye, something that could be an alternative to the natural dyes made of animals and plants that were used in fabric of the day. It was a welcome invention as natural dyes were expensive and often fickle.

Perkin’s discovery of mauveine changed all of that. Suddenly, analine dye was a thing. As other scientists got to work creating their own shade, he commercialized purple dye that was dubbed “mauve.” Once the expensive privilege of the rich, mauve was now affordable—and became a major fashion fad. By 1859, Punch was writing that “lovely woman is just now afflicted with a malady which apparently is spreading to so serious an extent that it is high time to consider by what means it may be checked….The eruption, which is of a mauve color, soon spreads, until in some cases the sufferer becomes completely covered with it.”

The “mauve measles” fad may have gone out with the hoop skirt, but Perkin’s discovery stuck and these days, artificial dyes make an entire rainbow accessible to fashion victims and conservative dressers alike.

P.S.: Quinine was eventually synthesized nearly 100 years after Perkin’s failed attempt, but it’s still not commercially available. 

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