Music and Chemistry, Living in Perfect Harmony

BorodinQuick now, name some famous scientists. Einstein surely comes to mind, then maybe Newton, Marie Curie, Galileo, Stephen Hawking. Not much of a problem. Next, name some famous composers. I suspect you’ll quickly reel off the names of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Liszt along with a host of others. No problem at all. But now name a scientist who also made major contributions to the world of music! Most people will draw a blank, but a few will come up with Alexander Borodin. Who, you ask? Alexander Borodin, chemist and Tony Award winner, that’s who!

Unfortunately Borodin, the composer of much of the music for “Kismet,” the winner of the 1954 Tony for Best Musical on Broadway, was not around to receive the award. That’s because he had been dead for sixty-seven years! The Russian composer/scientist had a fascinating dual career, characterized by dashes between the laboratory and the piano, with success springing from both. Music aficionados know him as a celebrated composer, with nary an idea that he was a highly regarded professor of chemistry. Chemists know of his exploits in the lab, but are unlikely to be familiar with his symphonies.

Alexander Borodin should not have been a “Borodin.” He should have been a Gedeoneshvilli, the name of his father, a Russian prince. The problem was that Alexander’s mother was the prince’s maid and marriage was out of the question. As was common practice in those days for children born out of wedlock, a serf was appointed as the “father” and his name bestowed on the newborn. Porfiry Borodin, the prince’s valet was the chosen one, with his wife being listed as the boy’s mother. Later, Alex’s real mom, who would always be referred to as “Aunt Mimi” would marry a retired army doctor, allowing the boy to grow up in a privileged household. He learned French, German, Italian and English, mastered the cello, flute and piano. At the age of nine Alex promptly fell in love with young Elena, for whom he composed his first musical work.

But science also captured the boy’s imagination, particularly the chemistry of fireworks. Before long, “Auntie’s” apartment was filled with flasks, beakers, jars of crystals and an assortment of chemical smells. Borodin loved chemistry and wanted to study it formally, but at the time in Russia there were no degrees being granted in the subject. It was, however, part of the medical curriculum, so if you wanted to study chemistry, you had to enroll in medical school, which Borodin did. He graduated in 1858 with his thesis, a requirement for a degree, focusing “On the Analogy of Arsenic Acid with Phosphoric Acid in Chemical and Toxicological Behaviour.” With the defense of that thesis Borodin was granted the degree of medical doctor, which was somewhat of a paradox, seeing that he was prone to fainting at the sight of blood! Never would he practice medicine, which as it turned out, would prove to be a boon both for chemistry and music.

Apparently the new graduate impressed the Russian government enough to send him to Europe for four years to absorb the latest developments in science. In Heidelberg he encountered countryman Dmitri Mendeleev, the “Father of the Periodic Table” who provided further chemical inspiration. So did Emil Erlenmeyer, the German chemist probably best known for the conical flask he designed, a standard piece of laboratory equipment. From Erlenmeyer Borodin learned about the chemistry of a family of compounds known as the aldehydes, which put him on a path leading to the discovery of a classic reaction known as the “aldol condensation,” often incorrectly attributed to the French chemist Charles-Adolphe Wurtz.

The aldol condensation has numerous applications, including in the synthesis of Lipitor, the famous cholesterol lowering drug, as well as in the production of cinnamaldehyde the compound that lends cinnamon flavor to buns and apple pie. As famed chemistry historian George Kauffman explains, Borodin also developed methods for adding fluorine or bromine to organic compounds, for determining the presence of urea and for analyzing the contents of tea and mineral waters.

After his sojourn through Europe, Borodin returned to Russia to take up a professorship at his alma mater, The Academy of Medicine. By all accounts he was a great teacher, dedicated to his students, but music was always on his mind. Between lectures he was known to jot down a catchy tune! Eventually Borodin would compose symphonies, chamber music, songs, piano works and an unfinished opera, “Prince Igor.” His highly original melodies often had an Islamic flavour, as is evident in Kismet.

Borodin deserves yet another laurel. One day he heard a young Russian pianist play at a concert and realized she had “absolute pitch.” Instant love! The two were soon married and Borodin became a passionate supporter of his wife’s crusade for women’s rights, eventually becoming one of the founders of the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg. To this day, women make up a large proportion of doctors in Russia.

Repeatedly throughout his career Borodin would express his dismay for having a lack of time. When he was in the lab, he yearned to compose music. When he sat at his piano, his thoughts drifted to his chemical experiments. His musician colleagues urged him to give up science, while his chemical mentor, Professor Nikolai Zinin, admonished him for wasting too much time thinking about music, telling him that “you cannot hunt two hares at the same time.”

Sadly, at the age of fifty-three, Alexander Borodin ran out of time altogether, departing this world, probably as he would have liked, with musical accompaniment, surrounded by his scientific colleagues. He had organized a fancy dress ball at his home to celebrate the achievements of the professors of the Academy of Medicine, when in the midst of an enthusiastic dance he collapsed and died. Who knows what else Alexander Borodin would have accomplished had he lived to a ripe old age? Perhaps there would have been another award alongside the Tony. Maybe a Nobel?

Joe Schwarcz

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