Alexander Borodin was a Russian composer, chemist, physician and advocate of women’s rights.
Born in 1833 in St Petersburg, Alexander Borodin was the illegitimate son of a Georgian nobleman, Luka Gedevanishvili. To avoid a scandal, Alexander was registered as the son of one of Gedevansishvili’s servants, Porfiry Borodin, and he kept this surname all his life. Despite this inauspicious start, Alexander enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, thanks to his father’s influence and his mother’s attention. Alexander’s mother, a young Russian woman named Evdokia Antonova, encouraged his studies in both music and the sciences, even so far as to construct a laboratory in her home where the young Alexander could make fireworks!
Initially choosing a career in medicine, Borodin graduated from the Medical–Surgical Academy in St Petersburg in 1855 and was appointed medical practitioner at the Second Military Hospital. However, within three years he abandoned his career in clinical medicine in favour of chemical research. He initially spent three years in the laboratory of Emil Erlenmeyer in Heidelberg, working on benzene derivatives, then went on to research halogen displacement reactions in Pisa.
He returned to the Medical–Surgical Academy in 1862 and took a position as chair of chemistry. Here his research interests turned to the study of aldehydes. Ten years later, he delivered an important report to the Russian Chemical Society in which he described the products formed from aldehyde self-condensations: he had discovered the aldol reaction (concurrently but independently of Charles Wurtz). The aldol reaction is among the most significant carbon-carbon bond-forming reactions and is still widely used to this day.
While Alexander’s scientific work was significant and took up most of his time, he is best remembered today for his abilities as a composer. Music had been one of Alexander’s hobbies since his youth, but meeting the brilliant pianist Ekaterina Protopopova in 1861 sparked a new period of musical interest. He began to learn composition under Mily Balakirev in 1862, and shortly after, he produced his first symphony. He and Protopopova were married the following year, and in the decade afterwards, he would produce most of his most memorable compositions. His fame spread outside Russia after the composer and conductor Franz Liszt conducted performances of his compositions, and he became known as one of ‘The Five’ group of Russian composers.
With his musical and scientific careers both accelerating, poor health after a bout of cholera, and a newly-adopted daughter to look after, Alexander was now under a lot of strain. He wrote to his wife:
“In trying to be a Glinka [composer], a Stupishin [civil servant], scientist, commissioner, artist, government official, philanthropist, father of other people’s children, doctor and invalid, I end up being the last in line.”
It is all the more remarkable then, that he found the time to return to his earlier medical career to campaign for equal education for women and for women’s rights more generally. He set up the first medical courses for women in Russia in 1872 and was one of the first people in the world to open medical education to women.
Death and legacy
Alexander continued his research in the chemistry laboratory until 1875, when his health, and that of his wife, began to deteriorate. After giving up his scientific work, he focused on composition, producing a string of chamber works and the famous symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia. Unfortunately, his epic opera Prince Igor, which he began nineteen years earlier, remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1887. Both his scientific research and musical compositions have endured; the aldol reaction remains an important part of synthetic chemistry and many of his compositions are still widely performed today. He was even awarded a posthumous Tony Award for writing the music later adapted for the musical Kismet!
“As a composer seeking to remain anonymous, I am shy of confessing my musical activity. This is intelligible enough. For others, it is their chief business, the occupation and aim of life. For me it is a relaxation, a pastime which distracts me from my principal business, my professorship. I love my profession and my science. I love the academy and my pupils, male and female, because to direct the work of young people, one must be close to them.”
Words by Andrea Banham & Stephen McCarthy
Image © Science Photo Library
Published September 2013