Borodin is best known for his symphonies, his two string quartets, the tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia and his opera Prince Igor. Music from Prince Igor and his string quartets was later adapted for the US musical Kismet. A notable advocate of women's rights, Borodin was a promoter of education in Russia and founded the School of Medicine for Women in Saint Petersburg.
As a chemist, he is best known for his work in organic synthesis, including being among the first chemists to demonstrate nucleophilic substitution, as well as being the co-discoverer of the aldol reaction.
Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg as an illegitimate son of a 62-year-old Georgian nobleman, Luka Stepanovich Gedevanishvili, and a married 25-year-old Russian woman, Evdokia Konstantinovna Antonova. Due to the circumstances of Alexander's birth, the nobleman had him registered as the son of one of his Russian serfs, Porfiry Borodin, hence the composer's Russian last name. As a result of this registration, both Alexander and his nominal Russian father Porfiry were officially serfs of Alexander's biological father Luka. The Georgian father emancipated Alexander from serfdom when he was 7 and provided housing and money for him and his mother. In spite of this, Alexander was never publicly recognized by his mother, who stayed close but was referred to by young Borodin as his "aunt".
Despite his status as a commoner, Borodin was well provided for by his Georgian father and grew up in a large four-storey house, which was gifted to Alexander and his "aunt" by the nobleman. Although his registration prevented enrollment in a proper gymnasium, Borodin received good education in all of the subjects through private tutors at home. In 1850 he entered the Medical–Surgical Academy in Saint 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 Saint 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 established medical courses for women (1872).