A Colourful Success in Medicine

I’d like to share this video with you (I love it so much I have posted it twice on my Twitter account, so I have to apologise if you follow me and are fed up with this link).

You may be thinking, “you’re not a surgeon, so why are you so excited by this?”, well although I think Quyen Nguyen is working on a fantastic idea for cancer surgery, my reason for liking this video is more of the historical link between colour and medicine.

I remember when I first learnt about William Perkin in A-Level chemistry and to this day I am still so impressed by how one man’s accidental discovery influenced many facets of our society.

In 1856, the only viable antimalarial drug was quinine, and with its demand beginning to surpass its available supply, an 18-year-old William Perkin set out to try to make it synthetically, using the waste product coal-tar. Perkin’s synthesis didn’t go quite to plan and he was instead left with a black sludge which he later refined into a vivid purple hue. Being the shrewd person he realised its potential as a textile dye and knew not to discard this discovery. He later named this colour mauve and it became known as the first synthetic dye. After patenting his dye Perkin set up a factory in Greenford Green (London, UK) with his father and brother. With Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie of France seen to endorse the colour, “mauve mania” spread and commercial success was soon achieved.

William Perkin holding a sample of fabric dyed with his chemical discovery: mauve.

William Perkin holding a sample of fabric dyed with his chemical discovery: mauve.

Perkin’s discovery is remarkable not only because it had an impact on fashion and society (working class people could readily afford colourful textiles), it also led to further developments in synthetic colours, playing a huge role in medicine – the staining agent methylene blue was used by Koch to discover the bacilli of tuberculosis and cholera; and (one which I’m sure Perkin himself would be happy about) this same agent was shown by Ehrlich to have antimalarial properties. Perkin’s discovery also created further interest in organic chemistry which is still at the heart of today’s pharmaceutical industry.

The video above is just one example of how synthetic dyes are still playing a role in medicine and biomedical research. I love the back story – after all, who would have ever thought that the advancements in fashion and medicine were so closely linked!

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One response to “A Colourful Success in Medicine

  1. Pingback: From Natural to Synthetic Dye | Inside My Mother's Closet

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