by Amy Haddlesey
As this weekend approaches, along with Queen’s Homecoming, it will not be uncommon to see engineers purpled from head-to-toe flocking to Richardson Stadium to watch the football game. This tradition, albeit messy, is one aspect of what makes Queen’s Homecoming so special and school spirit so unmistakable. Although it’s not always explicitly referred to, Gentian Violet, or Crystal Violet, is at the centre of this tradition. As an important part of not only Homecoming but other traditions on campus as well, it seems that Gentian Violet deserves a closer look.
Although our engineering students use this purple dye for aesthetic purposes, the dye actually has many notable medicinal properties. In the first half of the 20th century, Gentian Violet was predominantly used to treat trench mouth, thrush, impetigo, burns, pinworm, cutaneous and systemic fungal infections. With that said, it has been noted to have numerous applications, including anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-helminithic, anti-trypanosomal, anti-angiogenic, and even anti-tumour properties. Some of the latter mentioned effects have been proposed as recently as 2013. Today, Health Canada describes Gentian Violet as an herbal medicine that helps to relieve digestive disturbances, stimulate appetite, prevent nausea, and increase bile flow when it’s advantageous. Overall, Gentian Violet has an extensive and perhaps growing medicinal background as researchers continue to investigate its possible applications.
Beyond just the scope of medicine, Queen’s and other universities use Gentian Violet for its brilliant and intense colour, which is named after the gentian flower with similarly coloured petals. The stabilization of the molecule through resonance results in the intense colour of the compound. The molecule itself is symmetrical with three amino groups each containing two methyl groups attached and has many alternating double bonds throughout the structure. The intensity of the purple is also why the compound is an extremely effective biological stain.
One of the best-known uses of Gentian Violet is as a stain for visualization purposes in the lab. In 1884, Hans Gram was the first to notice the importance of the irreversible fixation of Gentian Violet by Gram-positive bacteria. This discovery was the basis of the Gram stain for categorizing bacteria. Gentian Violet is also used as a histological stain to study cells and tissues in plants and animals. In a similar way that Gentian Violet is an effective stain in the lab, its properties make it a great stain for when you want to be entirely purple. Thankfully, it comes off easily enough with a bleach-water mixture.
Another important thing to note is the history of Gentian Violet and the reason why Queen’s and other university engineering students chose the colour purple. It has been proposed that purpling is a tribute and in dedication to World War II British Naval Engineers. These individuals wore purple armbands, which would stain their skin after many days of working in the boiler room. It has also been suggested that it is in reference to the purple jackets engineering corps of the British army and navy wore instead of the customary red jackets. Another possible explanation that has come up is that the engineers abroad the Titanic wore purple overalls and that purple is a symbol of bravery for their efforts to keep the smoke signal going while the ship was sinking. No matter the exact origin, there’s no question that purple is strongly associated with engineering on our campus and on others as well.
Overall, it seems Gentian Violet has a lot more uses than just covering our FRECs and frosh here at Queen’s. It is another prime example of how much history (and science!) goes into the fun, uniting traditions at Queen’s. Having just celebrated 175 years, it’s no mystery how Queen’s has become a treasure trove of new and old traditions, each with their own stories. You never know what you may learn looking into some of them.