Posted by: Bystander PJ17 JUL 2013
I wrote recently about the first synthetic dye, mauveine, which was produced by William Henry Perkin in 1856 while trying to synthesise quinine from aniline (PJ, 8 June 2013, p684).
His discovery sparked a rush to develop more aniline-based dyes. In 1859, French chemists isolated two new purplish dyes, naming both after battles in the second Italian war of independence, in which French and Sardinian armies secured Italy’s freedom from Austrian control.
The first of these dyes was given the name “magenta” because it was discovered shortly after the battle of Magenta early in June 1859. The second was named “solferino” to commemorate the decisive battle of Solferino just 20 days later. In both cases, the colour supposedly represented the appearance of the battlefield after the bloodshed.
So what distinguishes magenta from solferino? Dictionaries are often ambiguous. One defines magenta as “reddish purple” and solferino as “purplish red”. In reality, there seems to be no difference. Both names — along with fuchsine, aniline red, roseine and azaline — have been used to describe various salts of rosaniline, including the acetate, hydrochlorate and nitrate.
But Solferino — the battle rather than the dye — has left a healthcare legacy. Shortly after the conflict a Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, arrived in the village and found the battlefield littered with 38,000 dead, dying and wounded. Shocked that little was being done to care for the injured survivors, he organised the civilian population to help them, without regard to their side in the encounter. He established makeshift hospitals and bought dressings and other materials.
Dunant’s account of his experiences inspired the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863 and the institution of the first Geneva Convention in 1864. In 1901 Dunant received the first Nobel peace prize. The Red Cross has since won the prize three times.