Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Aleksandr Borodin

Today we celebrate the unique contributions to capitalism of Aleksandr Borodin.

Outside of specialists in chemistry, most people today, if they know him at all, know Borodin primarily from his career as a composer of classical music. Borodin was a member of "The Five" aka "The Mighty Handful," a group of late nineteenth century Russian composers (including Cui, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov) who focused on producing a distinctively Russian form of romantic music instead of imitating salon styles of contemporary Europe. Borodin wrote some of the most moving music, including the Polovstian Dances, the opera Prince Igor, and what I think is one of the most moving pieces in the classical chamber repertoire, his String Quartet No. 2 (see below for the stunning third movement played by the Pacific Strings).

Despite the immense aesthetic contribution Borodin made, which can inspire other heroes of capitalism and give them spiritual fuel, he also made important contributions to chemistry, which forms the basic foundation of dozens of industrial applications today.

Borodin made his living as a research chemist, having received a Doctorate in Medicine from the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg and served as a post-doctoral fellow at Heidleberg University (the oldest university in Germany and one of the premier research centers for centuries) where he befriended and worked with Dmitrii Mendeleev, originator of the periodic table of the elements, and in many private labs. Borodin was known for his work on aldehydes, the aldol reaction, and the detection of urea in urine.

Though Borodin's achievements were not earth-shattering in themselves (see this article in the Journal of Chemical Education), his work did contribute the basis of much modern chemistry. For example, the aldol reaction he reported observing in 1872 (simultaneously discovered by Charles-Adolphe Wurtz, with subsequent work being halted by Borodin in favor of Wurtz as was the custom at the time) forms the basis of much pharmaceutical industry developments (including the production of stereochemically pure drugs) in everything from immunosuppressants and statins to tetracycline antibiotics and antifungals. Borodin is also credited with having developed the first organic fluorine compound through nucleophilic displacement. His music and his wife's ill health gradually drew away from his original chemical research, he emphasized the need to overhaul chemical education at his alma mater in St. Petersburg (including advocating the scientific training of women). Later students at St. Petersburg Medico-Surgical Academy would make important advances in medicine and chemistry that would help further advance both fields.

For his contributions to modern chemistry and for his beautiful music, we honor Borodin as a hero of capitalism.

Borodin the chemist
Wikipedia entry
Grove biography (mostly on his musical career)

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