Russian Mathematician and Educator 1850–1891
Russian mathematician Sofya Kovalevsky was born in Moscow, Russia, the daughter of a minor nobleman. She became interested in mathematics at a very young age, when an uncle discussed mathematical concepts with her. Because of a wallpaper shortage, her nursery was papered with her father's lecture notes from a course in calculus, and at age 11 she studied the notes, recognizing principles her uncle had discussed. Under a tutor, she became so enamored with mathematics that she neglected her other studies.
When her father stopped her mathematics lessons, Kovalevsky borrowed an algebra book and read it while the family slept. At age 14 she read a physics textbook written by a neighbor and taught herself trigonometry so that she could understand the optics section. The neighbor recognized her ability and persuaded her father to send her to St. Petersburg, Russia, to continue her education.
Long, Hard Road to Success
The story of Kovalevsky's adult life was one of doors closing in her face because she was a woman. After finishing her secondary education, she arrived in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1869 to study mathematics and natural sciences, only to discover that the university did not admit women. Instead, she attended classes unofficially for three semesters. In 1870 she decided to try her fortunes at the University of Berlin. Again, the university did not admit women, but an eminent professor agreed to tutor her privately. By 1874 she had written papers on Abelian integrals and Saturn's rings. A third paper, on partial differential equations, was published in an influential mathematics journal. On the recommendation of Kovalevsky's tutor, Germany's University of Göttingen granted her a Ph.D. in 1874.
Unable to get a job teaching mathematics, Kovalevsky returned home, where shortly after her arrival, her father died. In her grief she neglected mathematics for the next 6 years. Instead, she wrote fiction, theater reviews, and science articles for a newspaper. Later in her life, Kovalevsky would go on to write plays.
In 1880 Kovalevsky resumed her study of mathematics. In 1882 she began work on the refraction of light and published three papers on the subject. Finally, in 1883 a door opened—she was granted a temporary appointment at the University of Stockholm in Sweden, where she taught courses in the latest mathematical topics. There she published a paper on crystals in 1885. She was appointed editor of a new journal, Acta Mathematica, and organized conferences with leading mathematicians.
In 1888 Kovalevsky entered a paper titled "On the Rotation of a Solid Body about a Fixed Point" in a competition sponsored by the French Academy of Science. The committee thought so highly of the paper that it increased the prize money. In 1889 she won a prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences for further work on the same topic and was elected as a corresponding member to the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Russia. Later that year the university granted her status as a professor.
Unfortunately, Kovalevsky's triumph did not last long. In 1891, at the summit of her career, she died of pneumonia in Stockholm. She was just 41 years of age.
Michael J. O'Neal
Sofia Kovalevsky. Biographies of Women Mathematicians. <http://www.agnesscott.edu/1riddle/women/kova.htm>.
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