William Perkin was born in London in 1838. He studied at the Royal College of Chemistry under August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Perkin was a brilliant student and Hofmann appointed him as his laboratory assistant. Acting on a suggestion made by Hoffman that it might be possible to synthesize quinine from the by products of coal tar, Perkin discovered the synthetic dye, aniline purple (mauveine).
Although only 18, Perkin realised the commercial potential of his discovery. In 1857 he obtained a patent and set up a business with his father manufacturing aniline in a chemical factory at Harrow. Calling the colour mauve, it soon became highly popular with the fashion industry. By the age of 23, Perkin was a man of considerable wealth and the acknowledged expert on artificial dyes.
In 1873 Perkin was able to retire from his business. The following year he synthesized coumarin, an aromatic substance known for its pleasant scent of new-mown hay. This discovery initiated the synthetic perfumes industry. William Perkin died in 1907.