Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/November 1906/The Progress of Science

william henry perkin



It is not often that a scientific man can take part in the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of a great discovery that he has made. Perkin, when he was a boy of eighteen, noted a muddy precipitate which occurred in connection with an attempt to produce quinine artificially. The new idea that this substance could be used as a dye-stuff, the courage which led to a patent and further investigations, and the patient persistence with which all practical difficulties were overcome are an unusually clear exhibit of what is meant by genius. This violet color was called 'mauve' and was the forerunner of the aniline dyes and of much besides.

Fifty years ago the dyeing and printing industries were on an extremely empirical basis, the natural dye-stuffs being applied by secret and rule-of-thumb methods. In order to substitute a laboratory product and scientific methods, it was necessary for Perkin to establish a manufactory, which he did with the aid of his father and brother. The production of aniline was put on a commercial basis, and the discovery and application of other dyestuffs was a comparatively simple matter. Magenta was discovered in France three years later, and subsequently all the colors of the rainbow were produced from aniline. Perkin himself being largely responsible for alizarine, and indirectly for synthetic indigo. As is well known, the artificial production of these dye-stuffs has led to great changes in agriculture and manufactures, one of the most important being the alliance of science and industry in Germain-, which has given that country almost a monopoly in the work that originated with Perkin in Great Britain.

The coal tar products now give us flavors and perfumes as well as colors. Saccharine, more than five hundred times as sweet as sugar, was discovered in the laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University. Salicylic and benzoic acids, though natural products, are chiefly produced artificially. Although quinine, which was the subject of Perkin's original research, has not been made by synthesis, the coal-tar products have given us an extraordinary series of drugs—antipyrin, acetanilid, phenoeoll, etc. They have given us smokeless powder, photographic films and indirectly nitrates from the atmosphere and the cyanide process of gold extraction.

The scientific advances have been no less remarkable than the industrial developments, and it should be especially noted that to these Perkin has contributed his full share. After acquiring a competence, he sold his manufactory in 1873 and has since devoted himself to scientific research. Professor Nernst has stated that Perkin is the founder of physical chemistry. In connection with his influence on chemistry, it should be remembered that two of his sons have become eminent for work in organic chemistry, both being fellows of the Royal Society.

The scientific and industrial developments following on Perkin's great discovery were adequately celebrated by an international gathering at the Royal Institution on July 26. It was presided over by Professor R. Meldola and various speeches and presentations were made, including the Hoffman and Lavoisier gold medals and degrees from Death Mask of Newton. several foreign universities. There was also a dinner, at which Mr. Haldane, secretary for war, proposed the toast of the evening and addresses were made by Professor Emil Fischer, Sir Henry Roscoe and others. Sir William and Lady Perkin held receptions at their home near Harrow and at London. American chemists decided to hold a special celebration of the jubilee, and Sir William and Lady Perkin accepted an invitation to be present at a banquet to be given in New York City, on October 6. Professor Chandler, of Columbia University, presided, and addresses were made by Dr. Hugo Schweitzer, President Ira Remsen, Dr. H. W. Wiley, Professor Walther Nernst and others. Sir William Perkin was presented with the first impression of a Perkin medal, which will hereafter be awarded annually for work in applied chemistry; with a silver tea service, and with honorary membership in the American Chemical Society. There will also be founded in honor of Sir William Perkin a circulating library for American chemists.


Sir William Huggins, eminent for his contributions to spectroscopic astronomy and president of the Royal Society from 1900 to 1905, has collected into a volume, published by Messrs. Methuen and Company, selections from four of the addresses given at anniversary meetings of the society. Reflecting Telescope made by Newton with his own hands in 1671, standing on the bound MSS. of the Principia. The addresses are prefaced by a sketch of the early history of the society, and are followed by a discussion of the place of science in education. The volume contains excellent copies of paintings of fellows of the Royal Society which hang in its halls, and other illustrations, several of which are here reproduced.

The address of 1902 is concerned with the importance of science to the industries of Great Britain, which, it is argued, can only be maintained by making science an essential part of all education. Germany and the United States are quoted as examples that should be followed in their encouragement of research work as a condition of academic degrees. The solution offered appears to be rather optimistic, for Sir William wishes to retain the culture to be derived from classical and literary studies, and to find time for the thorough study of science by improving methods of teaching and by greater devotion to work on the part of the students.

This address had a practical outcome in so far as the council of the Royal Society was lead to draw up a memorandum urging the universities to give greater encouragement to science with a view to its recognition in schools and elsewhere as an essential part of general education, but no very considerable results followed, both Oxford and Cambridge having voted shortly after the presentation of this letter to reject plans for the acceptance of a larger amount of science in the entrance examinations.


President of the Royal Society. 1703-27.

From the painting by T. Vanderbank.

Meeting Room of the Royal Society in Burlington House.

The second address, given in 1903, reviewed the relation of the Royal Society to the special scientific societies. The increase of knowledge and the necessary differentiation of the sciences led to the foundation of the Linnean Society for natural history in 1788 and to the establishment of the Geological Society in 1807, and there are now in London and elsewhere in Great Britain numerous societies devoted to the special sciences. Sir William does not discuss the relations of the Royal Society to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, nor to the British Academy for philosophy, history and philology, which was established during his presidency, after long discussion as to whether the subjects that it covers should be included in the scope of the Royal Society. It appears that efforts were made some ten years ago to form a more or less close affiliation of the principle special societies with the Royal Society, but the plan did not prove feasible. Sir William favors publishing the papers read before the Royal Society both in its transactions and in the publications of the special society, and such a plan is in operation in the case of the Royal Astronomical Society. It is not, however, clear just what is gained by this plan for science, though it might for the time lead scientific men to present their papers before the Royal Society. This discussion has led to the publication of the transactions in two parts, one for the natural sciences and the other for the exact sciences, but it is difficult to see the advantages of publishing, even in two series, papers scarcely one tenth of which would be of interest to any one student. It does not seem that meetings at which papers in all the sciences are read have a useful function at the present time, and this appears to be clearly indicated by the programs and attendance at the ordinary meetings of the Royal Society and of our own National Academy of Sciences.

The third address discusses the relation of the Royal Society to the state and its responsible public duties. The society is not supported by the state, although it administers a government fund for research and publication amounting to £5,000 annually and occupies rooms provided by the government. Sir William takes pride in the fact that the society is a private body of learned men for the promotion of | natural knowledge at their own cost. Certainly the British traditions have been well maintained by the Royal Society, Sir William himself being a notable example. He has devoted his life to astronomical research, has built his observatory at his own cost and has worked without a salary of any kind. It is, however, somewhat doubtful whether such traditions can be maintained in the future. In any case, they belong to an aristocracy rather than to a democracy. It will probably be found that even in Great Britain the government will need to employ its scientific men, and will not depend on the voluntary advice and assistance of an independent society.

The fourth address reviews the influence that science, represented by the Royal Society, has had upon the life and thought of the world. It is truly remarkable what a large part of the great scientific advances from Newton to Darwin, and since Darwin, have had their origin in the work of the fellows of the Royal Society.


The British Association for the Advancement of Science has celebrated its foundation in York seventy-five years ago by meeting this year in that city. The attendance at the meeting was 1,959, which is fully as large as the

The Principal Library of the Royal Society.

average, though some 600 fewer than at the meeting in the same city twenty-five years ago, when Sir John Lubbock presided and the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the association was celebrated. The president this year was Dr. E. Ray Lankester, director of the British Museum of Natural History. His address consisted of two parts—one a survey of the progress of science during the preceding twenty-five years; the second a discussion of the relations of the government to science. It is an almost impossible task for one man to describe the extraordinary and diverse scientific advances of the past generation. Although the address as printed is very long, numerous important topics are of necessity omitted, and others are perhaps unduly emphasized. It is not certain that Metchnikoff's phagocytic theory of immunity occupies the important place in modern science that is given to it in this address, nor even that radium twenty-five years hence will loom as large as it does now. In his review of the influence of science on the life of the community and its relation to the government, Professor Lankester takes the somewhat pessimistic attitude which appears to be common in Great Britain. He says that political administrators are altogether unaware of the vital importance of science in public affairs and that whole departments of the government in which scientific knowledge is the one thing needful are carried on by ministers and clerks who are ignorant of science and dislike it. Dr. Lankester attributes this ignorance and dislike to "the defective education, both at school and university, of our governing class, as well as to a racial dislike among all classes to the establishment and support by public funds of posts which the average man may not expect to succeed by popular clamor or class privilege in gaining for himself—posts which must be held by men of special training and mental gifts."

Dr. Lankester then enumerates on the other side of the account the establishment of the National Physical Laboratory, the subsidizing of the Marine Biological Association and the endowment of the Lister Institute by Lord Iveagh. He continues: "Many other noble gifts to scientific research have been made in this country during the period on which w r e are looking back. Let us be thankful for them, and admire the wise munificence of the donors. But none the less we must refuse to rely entirely on such liberality for the development of the army of science, which has to do battle for mankind against the obvious disabilities and sufferings which afflict us and can be removed by knowledge. The organization and finance of this army should be the care of the state."

The British Association will meet next year at Leicester under the presidency of Sir David Gill, astronomer royal in South Africa. The meeting of 1908 will be in Dublin, and in 1909 the association will for the third time visit Canada, meeting in Winnipeg.


Dr. Ludwig Boltzmann, eminent for his work in theoretical physics, of which subject he was professor in the University of Vienna, has committed suicide.

Professor S. F. Earle has resigned the directorship of the Cuban Central Agricultural Station, which was organized in 1902.—Dr. H. C. Wood, for thirty years professor of therapeutics in the University of Pennsylvania and until 1902 clinical professor of diseases of the nervous system, has retired from the active duties of his chair, and has been made professor emeritus. —Dr. A. R. Crook, for the past twelve years professor of mineralogy and economic geology at Northwestern University, has been appointed curator of the Illinois State Museum of Natural History at Springfield.