Kovalevskaya, Sophia (1850–1891)

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Kovalevskaya, Sophia (1850–1891)

Russian mathematician, teacher, writer, occasional nihilist sympathizer and the first modern woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics. Name variations: Kovalevskaya (or Kovalevskaia) is the feminized version of Sophia's married name, according to the Russian tradition; she is also referred to as Sonya, Sofya, or Sofia Kovalevsky or Kovalevski, or Sophia Korvin-Krukovsky or Corvin-Krukovsky. Born Sophia Vasilevna Korvin-Krukovsky on January 15, 1850, in Moscow; died in Stockholm on February 10, 1891, of pneumonia; daughter of Vasily Vasilevich Korvin-Krukovsky, or Corvin-Krukovsky (1801–1875, a noble who served in the army and later made a living managing his provincial estate) and Elizaveta (Schu-bert) Fedrovna (1820–1879); education began at the age of eight when she received instruction from personal tutors; married Vladimir Onufrievich Kovalevsky (1842–1883), in 1868; children: Sophia Vladimirovich Kovalevskaya (b. October 17, 1878).

Went to Germany to continue her higher education, specializing in mathematics (1869); earned Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen (1874); became a lecturer, then a professor, at the University of Stockholm; received a number of accolades for her work,including the Paris Academy's Prix Borodin and a corresponding membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences; minor participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, and an occasional supporter of Russia's nihilists, though she was never fully committed to their radical cause.

Selected writings:

non-scientific writings that are available in English include her memoir of her early years, Recollections of Childhood, and an unfinished novel entitled Nigilistka (Female Nihilist), which was translated into English as Vera Vorontsoff.

Sophia Kovalevskaya was a renowned scientist who refused to remain satisfied with becoming the world's first female professional mathematician. In addition, she was a talented author who wrote a number of fiction and non-fiction pieces, many of which remained unfinished at the time of her premature death. Her strong interest in political matters also surfaced sporadically throughout her life. Though she rarely became actively involved in politics, she often supported young radicals by giving them money or helping them obtain travel documents. In the end, however, her love of mathematics always drew her back to the world of science.

Sophia's parents, Vasily Vasilevich Korvin-Krukovsky and Elizaveta Fedrovna Schubert , were married on January 17, 1843, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Their first child, Anna Vasilevna (Jaclard) , was born in late 1843. Seven years later, Sophia was born, on January 15, 1850; five years after that, they had a son, Fedor.

Sophia's memories of her early years were unhappy ones. She later remembered feeling ignored and unloved during much of her childhood. Although it is true that she was never particularly close to her mother or brother, she was her father's favorite, and she maintained a strong, loving relationship with her sister throughout their lives.

In 1858, when Sophia was eight, the Krukovskys left their home in St. Petersburg and moved permanently to their estate at Palibino, near the present Russian-Belarus border, though they continued to spend winters in the capital. Sophia's education began at that time when her father arranged for private instruction for her and Anna. While she received a basic education from her tutor, Joseph Malevich, it was her uncle, Peter Vasilevich Korvin-Krukovsky, who piqued Sophia's interest in mathematics by introducing her to sophisticated theoretical concepts. Another early academic influence was a neighbor, physics professor Nikolai Nikanorovich Tyrtov. He appreciated Sophia's mathematical abilities when she was a teenager and convinced her father to allow her to study trigonometry and calculus, training that was highly unusual for a young girl.

General Korvin-Krukovsky was atypical of the era's nobles for the amount of attention he paid to his daughters' education. In 19th-centu-ry Russia, women of the nobility were generally schooled in painting, sewing, music, French and so forth, and did not receive a scholastic education in the arts and sciences; women of other classes usually received no education at all.

The Krukovsky girls expressed an early interest in literature, which brought them into contact with one of the greatest authors of the era, Fyodor Dostoevsky. In 1864, Anna sent him a story she had written in the hope that he would publish it in his journal The Epoch. Dostoevsky and Anna began to correspond about Anna's writings and other literary matters. When they met shortly thereafter, he began to court her. His eventual proposal was turned down, as Anna believed he would make an overly demanding husband. Sophia, who had herself developed an unrequited romantic affection for the writer, was unable to understand Anna's decision. Despite the complicated beginnings of the friendship, both sisters remained acquainted with Dostoevsky, and later his wife Anna Dostoevsky , throughout their lives.

Jaclard, Anna (1843–1887)

Russian writer. Name variations: Anna Korvin-Krukovsky or Corvin-Krukovsky; Anna Krukovskaya or Krukovskaia. Born Anna Vasilevna Korvin-Krukovsky or Korvina-Krukovskaia in late 1843 in Moscow; died in October 1887; daughter of Vasily Vasilevich Korvin-Krukovsky (1801–1875, a noble who served in the army and later made a living managing his provincial estate) and Elizaveta (Schubert) Fedrovna (1820–1879); sister ofSophia Kovalevskaya (1850–1891); received instruction from personal tutors; married Victor Jaclard (a French revolutionary).

Sophia's lifetime interest in politics manifested itself early. During the Polish rebellion of 1863, she firmly proclaimed herself on the side of the Poles against the Russians, though at the age of 13 there was little she could do to actively support their cause. As the girls reached young adulthood, radical politics played a more important part in their lives when they became involved in Russia's nihilist movement. Russia of the 1860s and 1870s was teeming with groups and movements led by women and men hoping to find solutions to Russia's mounting social and political problems. Nihilism, less an ideology than a way of life, was one path open to politically aware young people. Nihilists held two strong beliefs—that science was capable of solving Russia's social ills, and that the struggle for personal fulfillment through economic and sexual liberation was necessary for both individual and social improvement. Nihilist women in particular sought freedom through "fictitious" marriages in which a man would volunteer to marry a woman on a platonic basis and thereby free her from her parents' house. This practice was popularized in Nikolai Chernyshevskii's 1863 novel What is to be Done?

Sophia was certainly influenced by nihilist precepts when she decided to engage in a fictitious marriage in order to pursue her scientific education in Europe. General Krukovsky would not permit either of his daughters to go abroad, and studying in Russia was virtually impossible, as higher education in that country was closed to women.

Sophia's sister Anna and their friend Anna Mikhailovna Evreinova were also interested in finding fictitious husbands so that they could leave their family households. The three young women therefore began screening candidates for this purpose while the Korvin-Krukovskys were spending the winter of 1867–68 in St. Petersburg. None proved suitable until Vladimir Onufrievich Kovalevsky presented himself, initially as a prospective husband for Anna. However, he decided that he would prefer to marry Sophia, and they became engaged in the summer of 1868. They were wed in September that year; she was 18 and he was 26.

Anna was not as fortunate as Sophia in finding a suitable husband, and the new couple decided to wait in St. Petersburg for Anna's luck to turn. Sophia tried to pursue her education there, but at that time women were only able to audit courses and were not formally admitted to university. A popular movement to protest this situation had been gaining strength since the 1850s, and Sophia was naturally a proponent of the cause, signing a petition that circulated the capital in 1867. Women were not allowed limited acceptance in special university courses until the 1870s, however, and Sophia therefore arranged to audit a number of courses and to be tutored independently as well. However, such measures were ultimately unsatisfactory, and in the summer of 1869, Sophia, Vladimir and Anna left Russia so that Sophia could continue her education in Europe. Anna left the couple in Germany and continued to France, where she quickly became involved with French revolutionaries.

Sophia spent three semesters at the University of Heidelberg between 1869 and 1870, studying physics, physiology, and mathematics. Between semesters, she traveled around Germany, Italy, England, and France. In London, she met many of her era's distinguished scientists and authors, including Charles Darwin and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ). Extremely impressed with Eliot, in 1886 Sophia wrote a short biography of her for a Russian journal.

Sophia's personal life at this time was difficult. The status of the Kovalevsky marriage was never clear to either party, and both Vladimir and Sophia suffered numerous misunderstandings and a great deal of pain as a result. Their fictitious marriage was to remain in a constant state of flux for a number of years. In the fall of 1870, the couple moved to Berlin, where Sophia studied privately with Professor Karl Theodore William Weierstrass who worked at the University of Berlin. He initially opposed the idea of working with women students, but Sophia quickly convinced him of her abilities by solving some difficult mathematical problems he laid out for her at their first meeting.

Sophia's studies were briefly interrupted when she and Victor went to Paris in the spring of 1871 to visit Anna and her lover Victor Jaclard who were participants in the Paris Commune. They lived among the rebels for about six weeks, returning to Berlin in early May. Shortly thereafter, however, the Commune was disbanded by the French government and rumors reached Sophia that Anna and Jaclard had been arrested. The Kovalevskys rushed back to Paris, followed closely by the sisters' parents, to discover that Anna was free but that Jaclard was indeed in custody. Jaclard soon escaped from prison, and it is unclear to what extent, if any, the Kovalevskys were involved. However, Vladimir allowed Jaclard to use his passport, thereby helping him escape from France.

Following their adventure in France, Sophia and Vladimir returned to Berlin where, for the next three years, Sophia continued her studies with Weierstrass, and they developed an excellent professional and personal rapport. At this time, she wrote three papers that were worthy of serving as a Ph.D. dissertation. Two were on Saturn's rings and Abelian integrals, but it was the paper on partial differential equations that she eventually chose to present. Her work was a simplification of Augustin Cauchy's 1842 solution to a problem involving the conduction of heat; the solution is now known as the "Cauchy-Kovalevsky Theorum."

Because awarding a woman a Ph.D. was almost unprecedented, Weierstrass and Kovalevskaya had to consider carefully where they would present her work. They eventually decided on the University of Göttingen because Weierstrass knew a number of the researchers there. He also wanted Sophia to be spared the oral examinations that usually accompany Ph.D.s (though the reasons for this are unclear), and the university often awarded doctorates without them. The school administration was reluctant at first, but they finally awarded Sophia a Ph.D. summa cum laude in 1874.

"People die, ideas endure": it would be enough for the eminent figure of Sophia to pass into posterity on the lone virtue of her mathematical and literary work.

—Karl Weierstrass

Sophia and Vladimir returned to Russia that year; in her five years there, she devoted little time to mathematics. Sophia was unable to work in Russia's higher education system, as women were not permitted to sit for the exam to obtain the requisite Russian master's degree. Vladimir too had difficulty finding work in his field, paleontology. Instead, the couple spent a great deal of time among the St. Petersburg social elite and turned their efforts to a series of financial investments, most of which turned out to be shaky. The marriage, always on awkward ground, was made more difficult by their straitened circumstances.

In the fall of 1875, General Korvin-Krukovsky died. Except for Anna, Sophia had been closest to her father of all her family members, and she took the news hard. She turned to Vladimir for support, and the marriage was temporarily strengthened. Indeed, it was at approximately this time that the marriage ceased to be a fictitious one, though their "real" marriage proved eventually to be no more stable than their assumed one.

A few events of note mark Sophia's stay in Russia. She attended the Trial of the 193, a trial of young radicals, which later figured in her work Nigilistka. She also helped raise money for the St. Petersburg Higher Courses for Women that opened in 1878. Her talents as an author began to find expression as well when she wrote reviews and scientific articles for one of the journals in which she and Vladimir had invested. On a more personal note, Sophia gave birth to a daughter, also named Sophia, known by her nickname Fufu, on October 17, 1878.

Professionally, however, life in Russia was unsatisfying for Sophia, and she eventually decided to seek employment abroad. In November 1880, she left Russia for Berlin alone, leaving Fufu behind with her friend and fellow scientist Julia Lermontova . Sophia hoped to re-establish her ties with the mathematical community, including Professor Weierstrass, whom she had neglected for the previous three years. The Kovalevskys' marriage had grown increasingly untenable during their stay in Russia, pushed to the breaking point by financial concerns. Vladimir, always somewhat unstable, was less able than Sophia to cope with the financial and professional difficulties they both faced. In March 1881, the couple agreed that they should continue to live apart. Fufu joined her mother in Berlin while Vladimir remained in Russia.

That fall, Sophia moved to Paris to be near her sister. She continued to correspond with a number of universities through her male colleagues in an effort to find a teaching position in any one of a number of European schools. Her contacts were not restricted to the academic community, however. She also met with many of the Russian political emigres living there, including Peter Lavrov and Marie Jankowska-Mendelson , with whom she developed a lasting friendship.

Sophia's disintegrating marriage came to a tragic end on April 15, 1883, when Vladimir committed suicide after months of increasingly erratic behavior. Sophia was devastated by her husband's death and refused to eat or see anyone for days. When she recovered from her grief, she returned to Russia to straighten out his affairs. She also managed to ensure that his name remained unsullied following his shaky, and sometimes legally questionable, financial dealings.

That same year, Sophia finally won a teaching position as a lecturer at the University of Stockholm, making her the first modern woman to receive a post at a European university. Her introductory lecture on January 30, 1884, was on partial differential equations, the subject of her dissertation. As a lecturer, she received no pay for her work and lived solely on her students' contributions.

Although she loved her work, Kovalevskaya did not particularly enjoy life in Sweden. While there, she began studying the problem of the rotation of a solid body around a fixed point, a question that would consume her for the next

five years. She also worked as an editor of the mathematical journal Acta Mathematica, which had been founded by her colleague and friend Gösta Mittag-Leffler, brother of Anne Charlotte Edgren . In June 1884, Kovalevskaya was offered a five-year term at the University of Stockholm as an "extraordinary (or assistant) professor." For the next few years, she traveled back and forth between her friends and family in Russia, Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm.

In the fall of 1886, Sophia was suddenly called to Russia to visit her sister who was very ill, likely with cancer. Kovalevskaya spent two months in Russia, sitting at Anna's bedside and discussing their childhood. The following summer, Sophia again returned to Russia to help Anna move to Paris to be with Jaclard. In October of that year, Anna died. Sophia reacted far differently to Anna's death than she had to Vladimir's. She did not suffer the near breakdown she had when her husband died, but continued with her work. As she once wrote to Mittag-Leffler, "I only bemoan and bewail when I am slightly unhappy. When I am in great distress, then I am silent."

It was at this time that Kovalevskaya began to devote more attention to her non-scientific writings. In 1887, she collaborated with the author Anne Charlotte Edgren on a play, "The Struggle for Happiness." The hours spent discussing her youth at her sister's bedside also inspired Sophia to write about her childhood, and her memoir Recollections of Childhood was published in 1889. Kovalevskaya's last substantial literary work was a novel that she never completed about a nihilist girl in St. Petersburg during the politically turbulent 1870s, known as Nigilistka (female nihilist) in Russian or Vera Vorontsoff in English. The novel was not published in Russia until 1906, though it was published in Sweden in 1892. She was also working on a number of other projects at the time of her death, including a fictionalized biography of the author Nikolai Chernyshevskii.

Even as she devoted more time to her literary efforts in her final years, Kovalevskaya received increasing acclaim for her scientific work as well. In December 1888, she was awarded the Prix Borodin from the Academy of Paris (a first for a woman) for her work on the rotation of a solid body around a fixed point. In June 1889, she was awarded a permanent professorship at the University of Stockholm. That winter, she became the first woman elected as a corresponding member to the Russian Academy of Sciences, an honor to which she had been aspiring her entire professional life.

Personally, Sophia spent the last years of her life in an intense, turbulent relationship with Maxim Kovalevsky, a distant relative of her former husband. It is possible that during their last vacation together in France, they were making plans to marry. She left Maxim in France in January 1891. By the time of her arrival in Sweden on February 5, she was gravely ill. Over the next few days, she deteriorated rapidly, and on February 10, 1891, Sophia Kovalevskaya, the world's first woman professional mathematician, died of pneumonia. She was 41 years old.


Donaldson, Christine F. "Russian Nihilism of the 1860s: A Science-Based Social Movement," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1979.

Kennedy, Don H. Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1983.

Koblitz, Ann Hibner. A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia, Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary. Boston, MA: Birkhäuser, 1983.

——. "Science, Women and the Russian Intelligentsia: The Generation of the 1860s," in Isis. Vol. 79, no. 297. June 1988, pp. 208–226.

Kovalevskaya, Sofya. A Russian Childhood. Translated, edited and introduced by Beatrice Stillman. NY: Springer-Verlag, 1978.

Kramer, Edna. "Sonya Kovalevsky," in Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie. NY: Scribner, 1973.

Naginski, Isabelle. "A Nigilistka and a Communarde: Two Voices of the Nineteenth-Century Russian Intelligentka," in Women as Mediatrix. Edited by A. Goldberg. NY: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Rappaport, Karen. "S. Kovalevskaya: A Mathematical Lesson," in The American Mathematical Monthly. Vol. 88, no. 6, 1981, pp. 564–574.

Stites, Richard. Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

suggested reading:

Bell, E.T. Men and Mathematics, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1937, pp. 406–432 (for information on Weierstrass and his work with Kovalevskaya).

Cooke, Roger. The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya. NY: Springer-Verlag, 1984 (for information on Kovalevskaya's mathematics and a list of her writings in their original languages; most of Kovalevskaya's works have not been translated into English).

Keen, Linda. The Legacy of Sonya Kovalevskaya. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1987.

Susan Brazier , freelance writer, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

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