The word alizarin derives from the Arabic al-usara, juice.
By 1804, the English dye maker George Field had refined the technique to lake madder by treating it with alum, and an alkali, that converts the water-soluble madder extract into a solid, insoluble pigment. This resulting madder lake has a longer-lasting color, and can be used more versatilely, for example by blending it into a paint. Over the following years, it was found that other metal salts, including those containing iron, tin, and chromium, could be use in place of alum to give madder-based pigments of various other colors. This general method of preparing lakes has been known for centuries.
In 1826, the French chemist Pierre-Jean Robiquet found that madder root contained two colorants, the red alizarin and the more rapidly fading purpurin. The alizarin component became the first natural dye to be synthetically duplicated in 1868 when the German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann, working for BASF, found a way to produce it from anthracene. About the same time, the English dye chemist William Henry Perkin independently discovered the same synthesis, although the BASF group filed their patent before Perkin by only one day.
The synthetic alizarin could be produced for a fraction of the cost of the natural product, and the market for madder collapsed virtually overnight. The principal synthesis entailed oxidation of anthraquinone-2-sulfonic acid with sodium nitrate in concentrated sodium hydroxide. Alizarin itself has been in turn largely replaced today by the more light-resistant quinacridone pigments developed at DuPont in 1958.
In clinical practice it is also used to stain synovial fluid to assess for basic calcium phosphate crystals.
At right is displayed the color alizarin crimson.