He was a notable advocate of women's rights and a proponent of education in Russia and was a founder of the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg.
Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg, the illegitimate son of a Georgian noble, Luka Gedevanishvili, and a 24-year-old Russian woman, Evdokia Konstantinovna Antonova. The nobleman had him registered as the son of one of his serfs, Porfiry Borodin. As a boy he received a good education, including piano lessons. In 1850 he entered the Medical–Surgical Academy in St Petersburg, which was later home to Ivan Pavlov, and pursued a career in chemistry. On graduation he spent a year as surgeon in a military hospital, followed by three years of advanced scientific study in western Europe.
In 1862 Borodin returned to St Petersburg to take up a professorial chair in chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy and spent the remainder of his scientific career in research, lecturing and overseeing the education of others. Eventually, he managed to establish medical courses for women (1872).
He began taking lessons in composition from Mily Balakirev in 1862. He married Ekaterina Protopopova, a pianist, in 1863, and had at least one daughter, named Gania. Music remained a secondary vocation for Borodin outside his main career as a chemist and physician. He suffered poor health, having overcome cholera and several minor heart attacks. He died suddenly during a ball at the Academy, and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, in Saint Petersburg.
Opera and orchestral works
Borodin met Mily Balakirev in 1862. While under Balakirev's tutelage in composition he began his Symphony No. 1 in E flat major; it was first performed in 1869, with Balakirev conducting. In that same year Borodin started on his Symphony No. 2 in B minor, which was not particularly successful at its premiere in 1877 under Eduard Nápravník, but with some minor re-orchestration received a successful performance in 1879 by the Free Music School under Rimsky-Korsakov's direction. In 1880 he composed the popular symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia. Two years later he began composing a third symphony, but left it unfinished at his death; two movements of it were later completed and orchestrated by Glazunov.
In 1868 Borodin became distracted from initial work on the second symphony by preoccupation with the opera Prince Igor, which is seen by some to be his most significant work and one of the most important historical Russian operas. It contains the Polovtsian Dances, often performed as a stand-alone concert work forming what is probably Borodin's best known composition. Borodin left the opera (and a few other works) incomplete at his death. Prince Igor was completed posthumously by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. It is set in the 12th century, when the barbarous Polovtsians invaded southern Russia. The story tells of the capture of Prince Igor and son Vladimir of Russia by Polovtsian leader Khan Konchak, who entertains his prisoners lavishly and calls on his slaves to perform the famous Polovtsian dances, which provide a thrilling climax to the second act.
No other member of the Balakirev circle identified himself so openly with absolute music as did Borodin in his two string quartets, and in his many earlier chamber compositions. Himself a cellist, he was an enthusiastic chamber music player, an interest that deepened during his chemical studies in Heidelberg between 1859 and 1861. This early period yielded, among other chamber works, a string sextet and a piano quintet. In thematic structure and instrumental texture he based his pieces on those of Felix Mendelssohn.
In 1875 Borodin started his First String Quartet, much to the displeasure of Mussorgsky and Vladimir Stasov. That Borodin did so in the company of The Five, who were hostile to chamber music, speaks to his independence. From the First Quartet on, he displayed mastery in the form. His Second Quartet, in which his strong lyricism is represented in the popular "Nocturne", followed in 1881. The First Quartet is richer in changes of mood. The Second Quartet has a more uniform atmosphere and expression.
Career as a chemist
In his profession Borodin gained great respect, being particularly noted for his work on aldehydes. Between 1859 and 1862 Borodin held a postdoctorate in Heidelberg. He worked in the laboratory of Emil Erlenmeyer working on benzene derivatives. He also spent time in Pisa, working on organic halogens. One experiment published in 1862 described the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine inbenzoyl chloride. A related reaction known to the West as the Hunsdiecker reaction published in 1939 by the Hunsdieckers was promoted by the Soviet Union as the Borodin reaction. In 1862 he returned to the Medical–Surgical Academy, taking up a chair in chemistry, where he worked on self-condensation of small aldehydes. He published papers in 1864 and 1869, and in this field he found himself competing with August Kekulé.
Borodin is co-credited with the discovery of the Aldol reaction, with Charles-Adolphe Wurtz. In 1872 he announced to the Russian Chemical Society the discovery of a new by-product in aldehyde reactions with alcohol-like properties, and he noted similarities with compounds already discussed in publications by Wurtz from the same year.
He published his last full article in 1875 on reactions of amides and his last publication concerned a method for the identification of urea in animal urine.
His successor in the chemistry chair at Medical-Surgical academy was his son-in-law and fellow chemist, A. P. Dianin.