97: The Self-Empowered Woman: Borodin and Protopopova

Dear Followers,

Today, instead of focusing on one woman’s story, I’d like to introduce you to a man who had a positive effect on countless lives. Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin was born November 12 (Yay, Scorpio), 1833 in St. Petersburg, Russia. His mother was the mistress of a Georgian nobleman (Prince Luka Simonis dze Gedevanishvili) and had three illegitimate sons by him, one of whom was Alexander. At that time (and in that culture, “unacknowledged” offspring were given the surname of servants or employees of the nobleman, which is why Alexander’s registered father was listed as Porfiry Borodin).

Today, music lovers think of Borodin as a composer (if you’ve ever heard the song “Stranger in Paradise,” which won a posthumous Tony Award in 1954, the credit goes to Borodin). As a child he received a good education, including piano lessons, but his first love was chemistry. He attended the Medico-Surgical Academy (the later home of Ivan Pavlov) and earned a doctorate in medicine with honors in 1856.

When he was 23 years old, he was sent to work at a military hospital, but spent the next five years pursuing his passion for organic chemistry. While doing post-doctorate studies in Heidelberg, he met his future wife, an amateur pianist named Ekaterina Protopopova. Ekaterina was in Heidelberg being treated for tuberculosis, and when she became sicker and moved to Pisa for more treatments, he followed her. They decided to return to Russia and get married, but money problems made them postpone the wedding, Finally, in 1863, when he was 30 years old, they married. Ekaterina’s health problems (asthma, etc.) made it difficult for her to tolerate St. Petersburg climate, so she spent long chunks of tine with her relatives in Moscow.

Borodin was a remarkable man for a number of reasons. He spoke French, German, English, Italian and Russian. And, even though he never attended a music conservatory, he played the piano, flute, violin and cello. Some experts in the field feel that he discovered the first link of cholesterol to heart disease 40 years before it was “officially” recognized.

But what I think makes Borodin a real star is that in addition to his work as a “Sunday composer,” his interest in chemistry and his work as a doctor, he was a devoted husband who tenderly cared for his ailing wife. AND in addition to all that, he agreed with Ekaterina’s belief that women deserved to have equal rights. Unlike most people of his time, he believed that woman deserved equal education, and he was convinced that females would make good doctors.

The life project he was most proud of was the establishment of the St. Petersburg Medical School for Women, which he founded and ran. The last 12 years of his life was spent making sure that women received the proper training to work as physicians side-by-side with their male counterparts

Sadly, Bordin died while dancing at the pre-lenten Maslenitsa festival with friends when he was only 54 years old. His heartbroken wife died five months later. The next time we visit a female MD, let’s send a silent thank you to the Russian composer who convinced the world that woman had the skills, the smarts and the right to be physicians.

Looking forward to your comments…

About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.