Retiree's Lunch Update March 2021

Written by  Dr Richard Thwaites, FRACI CChem

Published 9 April 2021


A question for trivia buffs:  what do Franz Liszt and Louis Pasteur have in common?  We all know one is the famous musician and composer, and the other the well-known microbiologist and father of immunology.  But what links them together?
Well, if you had attended the March Retirees’ “virtual lunch” you would have found out the answer:  they were both peers of Aleksandr (Alexander) Borodin:  Borodin played the piano with Liszt in Weimar in Germany and visited Pasteur’s lab in Paris.
Borodin himself was an extraordinarily gifted doctor, chemist and musician and crammed an enormous amount into his relatively short (53 year) life.  He was an outstanding linguist (fluent in Russian, French, German, English and Italian), a talented musician (he learned to play the flute, ’cello and piano), a distinguished composer (he completed two symphonies and started work on a third, wrote the opera “Prince Igor” and composed many chamber, piano and vocal works) and a renowned medical practitioner and scientist, particularly noted for his contributions to organic chemistry.

David illustrated his talk inter alia with photos of Borodin and Mendeleev, the Medicine and Surgery Academy in St Petersburg, and the piano on which Borodin and Liszt are reputed to have played duets in Liszt’s house in Weimar.
Borodin was born in November 1833 in St Petersburg, son of Prince Luka Stepanovitch Gedianishvili and his mistress, Avdot’ya Konsantinova Anonova.  He spent his early years as a “serf” and was educated at home.  He was freed from serfdom after his mother married in 1839.  He started writing music when he was 9 and built a home laboratory to produce fireworks when he was 13.  He entered the Medical Surgical Academy in St Petersburg in 1850 at the age of 17, and graduated in 1856 “with exceptional distinction”.  Although qualifying as a doctor and surgeon and becoming a house surgeon at the second military hospital from 1856 to 1859, Borodin became interested in chemistry under the influence of Professor Nikolai Zinin, who was the first to synthesise aniline, the basis of the synthetic dye industry.  

He received a doctorate of medicine in 1858 for his thesis: “On the Analogy of Arsenic and Phosphoric Acids in Chemical and Toxicological Behaviour” but then abandoned his medical career in 1859 to concentrate on chemistry and music.
David told us about Borodin’s extensive travels in Europe, working in the laboratories of Bunsen and Erlenmeyer in Heidelberg, travelling with Mendeleev to France, Italy and Switzerland, visiting Pasteur in Paris and attending a Papal mass in Rome.  David also mentioned the later controversy surrounding his work on aldehyde condensation reactions which was challenged by Kekule who accused Borodin of trespassing on his own territory! 
On a personal level, Borodin proposed to Russian pianist, Katerina S. Protopopova in 1861, and eventually married her in 1863.  Because of her poor health, he relocated to Pisa with her for some time, and while in Pisa worked on fluorine compounds with Sebastian de Luca and Paola Tessinari. 

In 1862, Borodin returned to St Petersburg Medical-Surgical Academy, and replaced Zinin as Professor of Chemistry in 1864.   Alexander and Katerina lived in the grounds of the Academy with their two adopted daughters, cats and other family members for the rest of his life, although he continued to travel around Europe representing the Academy at important international meetings and conferences.

Borodin first met composers Mily Balakirev and Modest Mussorgsky in around 1862.  Balakirev became Borodin’s musical mentor.  Five Russian composers became known as the “Mighty Handful”, all being well-known musicians and composers in their spare time, having distinguished careers outside music, namely Mily Balakirev (mathematician), Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (navy officer), Modest Mussorgsky (army officer), Cesar Cui (engineer and army officer) and Alexander Borodin (surgeon and chemist).
Among his other achievements, Borodin, together with Sergey Botkin, Ivan Sechenov and other professors founded the first medical course for women in Russia, commencing with obstetrics, in 1872.  Borodin became the Director of the Medico-Surgical Academy Laboratories in 1874, was the chair of the Governing Board of St Petersburg Music Lovers from 1879 to 1880.

Borodin died suddenly in 1887 at a party in the Academy in St Petersburg.

Borodin’s contributions to chemistry were substantial.  He authored or co-authored over 40 papers, from 1858 to 1886.  His first paper was: “On the Action of Ethyl Iodide on Hydrobenzamide and Amarine and the Constitution of these Compounds.”  David suggested that the most significant papers included ones on the preparation of benzolyl fluoride (in Pisa in 1862), the polymerization and condensation of aldehydes (in St Petersburg in the period 1864 to 1873, the studies that most upset Kekule) and in 1875, the determination of urea in urine. 

David provided attendees with a complete list of Borodin’s scientific papers, acknowledging particularly the work of George Kaufmann in collating this information, and especially acknowledged the help that Prof Ian Rae had given, including his comprehensive paper: “The Research in Organic Chemistry of Aleksandr Borodin 1833 – 1887” AMB1X, Vol 36, Part 3, November 1989, and the paper: “Borodin, Composer and Chemist” Chem Eng News, 1987, 65(7), 28-35. 
For music buffs, David suggested a number of recordings and Youtube clips, and recommended a good introduction would be to listen to the Polovtsian dances from “Prince Igor”.  I found three recordings of the Polovtsian dances on Youtube, one conducted by Valery Gergiev lasting a shade over 9 minutes, one conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham lasting ten and a half minutes, and one conducted by Andrej Kucybala lasting 13 minutes:  interesting how different conductors have interpreted the piece differently. 
But if you really want to hear some of Borodin’s best music, listen to a recording of the musical “Kismet” which came out on Broadway and the West End of London in the mid-1950s.  But don’t tell David I told you!   

A copy of David’s presentation together with references and other source material is available from 

The next meeting of the Retirees will be held via Webinar at 12:00PM on May 4th 2021.

Hope to see you soon!

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