Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield

This one is a reread. I vaguely remembered reading a book with an unusual name that talked about dye, and that the dye had turned out to have all sorts of interesting connections to medicine and other chemical advances. A bit of hunting and I had Mauve in my hands again and was rereading it.

It is interesting. William Perkin, who is almost unremembered these days, was interested in chemistry back when chemistry was viewed as dull and impractical, of less use than Latin or Greek.

He was also an amateur painter. This last is important because he tried to make artificial quinine and ended up with mauve instead, he took another look. Where previous researchers who had found interesting colors in their labs calmly dumped them out and went on with whatever they had been doing, Perkin looked at this bright new mauve, liked it, and contacted a textile dyer. After some initial difficulties, he became an immensely wealthy man and founder of a whole new industry, and, yes, ultimately helped with medicine since a number of the new artificial dyes turned out also to have antibiotic properties.

The book benefits from a great title, good writing, and an unexpected angle on an unexpected topic. It is worth a read--or, if you've forgotten the details, a reread.

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