Kovalevskaya, Sofia Vasilievna

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(18501891), mathematician and writer.

Sofia Korvin-Krukovskaya, growing up on an estate in Vitebsk province, displayed unusual mathematical ability from childhood. Desperate to escape the strictures of gentry womanhood, at eighteen she contracted a "fictive" marriage with the paleontologist and social activist Vladimir Kovalevsky, who took her to western Europe to study. In 1874 Kovalevskaya, mentored by the eminent German mathematician Karl Weierstrass, received a doctorate from Göttingen University. Afterward, the Kovalevskys, now married in fact, returned to St. Petersburg, where their daughter was born in 1878. In 1883 Kovalevsky, embroiled in financial scandal connected with an oil company scheme, committed suicide. Unable to find suitable teaching work in Russia, Kovalevskaya, at the urging of Weierstrass and the Swedish mathematician Gustav Mittag-Leffler, accepted a professorship in the newly established Stockholm University, becoming the first woman in modern Europe to hold such a post. In Sweden the homesick Kovalevskaya wrote her vivid reminiscences of girlhood; a novella based on a true incident, The Nihilist Girl ; two plays written in Swedish with writer Anna Charlotte Leffler under the title Struggle for Happiness, concerning the contrast between real and ideal fates in life; and some journalistic articles. In 1888 Kovalevskaya received the prestigious French Prix Bordin for mathematics in blind competition. Death from pneumonia in 1891 cut short Kovalevskaya's dual careers as mature scientist and budding author. In the early twentieth century her story served as inspiration for science-minded girls throughout Europe. Her mathematicsin particular, equations describing the motions of rotating solids over time ("Kovalevsky's top")has particular relevance in the space age.


Koblitz, Ann Hibner. (1993). A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia, Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kovalevskaya, Sonya. (1979). A Russian Childhood, tr., ed., and intro. Beatrice Stillman; with an analysis of Kovalevskaya's Mathematics by P. Y. Kochina. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Kovalevskaya, Sonya. (2001). Nihilist Girl, tr. Natasha Kolchevska with Mary Zirin. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

Mary Zirin

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Kovalevskaya, Sofia Vasilievna

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