Chemistry KS3/4: William Perkin and making scientific discoveries by chance

Professor Brian Cox describes the work of William Perkin as he attempted to find a way to make synthetic quinine to treat malaria.

Perkin started with a similar chemical to quinine (aniline, or phenylamine) and tried to oxidise it with potassium dichromate.

He produced a dark precipitate which seemed to stain anything it touched purple.

Purifying this gave him the purple dye mauveine.

This dye became popular after Queen Victoria wore clothes dyed with it.

This discovery initiated a revolution in synthetic chemistry.

Professor Cox reflects that Perkin’s curiosity and freedom to explore science and unexpected results were essential elements in this important discovery.

This short film is from the BBC series, Science Britannica.

Teacher Notes

This short film could be used to illustrate that not all scientific discoveries are achieved by people finding what they are looking for and that discoveries are more likely when scientists are curious and keen to explore in a methodical way.

Curriculum Notes

This short film will be relevant for teaching chemistry at KS3 and KS4/GCSE and National 4/5 and Higher in Scotland.

This topic appears in OCR, Edexcel, AQA, WJEC KS4/GCSE in England and Wales, CCEA GCSE in Northern Ireland and SQA.

More from Science Britannica:

Who was Henry Cavendish?
Who was Humphry Davy?
How CERN helps us understand the Big Bang
Sir Isaac Newton and the scientific method
John Tyndall and blue skies research
Targeted research
Global warming resistant GM crops
John Hunter and public engagement in science