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Sofia Kovalevskaya

Mathematician

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Portrait of the mathematician Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (1850-1891).
Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Known for:

  • first woman to hold a university chair in modern Europe
  • first woman on the editorial staff of a mathematical journal

Dates: January 15, 1850 - February 10, 1891

Occupation: novelist, mathematician

Also known as: Also known as: Sonya Kovalevskaya, Sofya Kovalevskaya, Sophia Kovalevskaia, Sonia Kovelevskaya, Sonya Korvin-KrukovskySofia Kovalevskaya's father was in the Russian Army and her mother was from a German family with many scholars; her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were both mathematicians. She was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1850.

As a young child Sofia Kovalevskaya was fascinated with the unusual wallpaper on the wall of a room on the family estate: the lecture notes of Mikhail Ostrogradsky on differential and integral calculus.

Although her father provided her with private tutoring -- including calculus at age 15 -- he would not allow her to study abroad for further education, and Russian universities would not then admit women. But Sofia Kovalevskaya wanted to continue her studies in mathematics, so she found a solution: an amenable young student of paleontology, Vladimir Kovalensky, who entered into a marriage of convenience with her. In 1869, they left Russia with her sister, Anyuta. Sonja went to Heidelberg, Germany, Kovalensky went to Vienna, Austria, and Anyuta went to Paris, France.

In Heidelberg, Sofia Kovalevskaya obtained permission of the mathematics professors to allow her to study at the University of Heidelberg. After two years she went to Berlin to study with Karl Weierstrass. She had to study privately with him, as the university in Berlin would not allow any women to attend class sessions.

With Weierstrass' support Sofia Kovalevskaya pursued a degree in mathematics, and her work earned her a doctorate sum cumma laude from the University of Göttingen in 1874. Her doctoral dissertation on partial differential equations is today called the Cauch-Kovelevskaya Theorem. It so impressed the faculty that they awarded Kovalevskaya the doctorate without examination and without her having attended any classes at the university.

Sofia Kovalevskaya and her husband returned to Russia after she earned her doctorate. They were unable to find the academic positions they desired. They pursued commercial ventures and produced a daughter as well. Sofia Kovalevskaya began writing fiction, including a novella Vera Barantzova which won sufficient acclaim to be translated into several languages.

Kovalensky, immersed in a financial scandal for which he was about to be prosecuted, committed suicide in 1883, but Sofia Kovalevskaya had already returned to Berlin and mathematics, taking their daughter with her. She became a privatdozent at Stockholm University, paid by her students rather than the university.

In 1888 Sofia Kovalevskaya won the Prix Bordin from the French Academie Royale des Sciences for research now called the Kovelevskaya top. This research examined how Saturn's rings rotated.

She also won a prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1889, and that same year was appointed to a chair at the university - the first woman appointed to a chair at a modern European university. She was also elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences as a member that same year.

She only published ten papers before her death from influenza in 1891, after a trip to Paris to see Maxim Kovalensky, a relative of her late husband with whom she was having a love affair.

Print Bibliography

  • Sofya Kovalevskaya. Nihilist Girl.
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  • Sofia Kovalevskaia. Russian Childhood. 1979.
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  • Joan Spicci. Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya. 2002.
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  • Don H. Kennedy. Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky. 1983.
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  • Ann Hibner Koblitz. A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia: Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary. 1993 reprint.
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  • Roger Cooke. The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya. 1984.
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  • Linda Keene, editor. The Legacy of Sonya Kovalevskaya: Proceedings of a Symposium. 1987.
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  • Related:
    • Osen, Lynn M. Women in Mathematics. 1975.
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    • Perl, Teri, and Analee Nunan. Women and Numbers: Lives of Women Mathematicians Plus Discovery Activities. 1993.

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