Was the composer Borodin the first to link cholesterol to
heart disease?

Cholesterol was first discovered in 1789 although it was not until 1932 that Windaus and Wieland were able to elucidate its chemical structure (Vance and Van den Bosch,2000). Its role in the pathogenesis of atherosclerotic disease was established in the early part of the 20th century.In 1910 Windaus had reported that atheromatous lesions contained 6 times as much cholesterol than the normal arterial wall.In 1913 Anichkov induced atherosclerosis in rabbits by feeding them cholesterol (Mehta and Khan,2002). Since then there has been much further work published and there is a great public awareness of cholesterol as a risk factor in the development of cardiovascular disease.

The Russian composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) is remembered primarily as one of the foremost composers of his period.Less well known is that he also pursued a very successful parallel career as a professor of chemistry within the medical school at St Petersburg, His published work included studies on the reactions of aldehydes and the halogenation of organic compounds.However being in the medical school he was involved in a number of applied analyses of clinical material an example being his published work on the determination of urine urea (Hood,2004)

On February 1st 1871 at a meeting of the Russian Chemical Society, Borodin delivered an account of some work performed by Dr Krylov under his guidance.This had involved the determination of fat in heart muscles affected by fatty degeneration.Mixed with the fat they found material resembling lecithin.When the fat itself was saponified (hydrolysed) their expectation was to find glycerol as the hydrolysis product.(Normal human adipose tissue such as subcutaneous fat consists mainly of triglyceride based lipid, the hydrolysis of which yields glycerol).To their surprise however their hydrolysis product was not glycerol but cholesterol (Figurovskii and Solov'ev, 1950;Steinburg and Kaufman,1988). Their finding of esterified cholesterol in heart lipid must not have been thought significant at the time.It was only at a later date that arterial atheromatous deposits were found to have a similar composition.

Fatty infiltration of heart muscle is considered to be part of the ageing process but there are a number of clinical conditions in which it can be found associated with a greater risk of myocardial infarction and sudden death (Pantanowitz,2001). Atheromatous deposits on the ventricular surface of the aortic valve in fatty degeneration of the heart were reported by Stokes in the nineteenth century (Stokes,1854)

Borodin and Krylov's discovery would appear to pre-date later descriptions of the harmful effects of cholesterol by approximately 40 years.

Consultant Clinical Biochemist
Pathology Department
Tameside General Hospital
Manchester OL6 9RW


Figurovskii,N A, Solov'ev,Y I. (1950) Alexander Porfire'vich Borodin:A Chemist's Biography (in Russian).Berlin, Springer-Verlag.

Hood, B. (2004) Alexander Borodin:Multi-Talented Chemical Pathologist.Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists.Number 126.31-32.

Mehta, N J, Khan I A. (2002) Cardiology's 10 Greatest Discoveries of the 20th Century. Texas Heart Institute Journal.29,164-171

Pantanowitz, L. (2001) Viewpoint.Fat Infiltration in the Heart.85,253

Steinburg, C, Kauffman G B. (1988) Alexander Porfire'vich Borodin: A Chemist's Biography. (English Translation).Berlin, Springer-Verlag, p68

Stokes,W. (1854) The Diseases of the Heart and the Aorta. Dublin, Hodges and Smith, pp 211-212

Vance, D E, Van den Bosch, H. (2000) Cholesterol in the Year 2000. Biochim. Biophys Acta, 1529,1-8

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