By Tzetzka Ilieva
How many young women do you know who like mathematics and cannot resist to the challenge of studying it? Not many, right? For centuries this fascinating science was considered an area reserved only for men and if the number of female mathematicians grows slowly but constantly now, it is because of women like Sofia Vasilievna Kovalevskaya (1851-1891). She was one of the first women with PhD on mathematics and one of the first women-professors in Europe.
Sofia was born January 15, 1850 in Moscow, Russia. In both Europe and America at this time, a girl could not get easily an education higher than the elementary. It was a common practice to prohibit the women attending lectures in the universities.
Sofia was the middle child of Elizabeth Fedrovna and general Vasily Vasilevich Korvin-Krukovsky, both coming from noble families. Her mother was “quite young and very beautiful,” according to Sofia’s memoirs. Elizabeth was also well read and spoke four European languages. The General served in the artillery and the family moved often until he retired. When Sofia was about eight years old, they settled in the family estate in Palibino, Provence of Vitebsk, in the northwest part of Russia. The big house was in the middle of a “wild and thinly populated area.” A vast forest bordered the estate from one side and from the other lay miles of meadows, hills and beautiful lakes. There couldn’t be a better place to provoke a child’s imagination.
The nobles in Russia had nurses and governesses to take care of the children. Usually the boys were seriously prepared from private tutors to continue their education in a military college or university. The goal for the girls was to make them literate and charming conversationalists with some ability in the arts so they could have more chances of finding a good husband.
Despite of the “wild” location of their estate, Sofia received better education than most of the girls at the time. Her father, as intelligent and well-educated man himself, hired for his children one of the best tutors. Sofia’s passion for mathematics, however, was born in the conversations with her uncle Pyotr Vasilievich Korvin-Krukovsky who loved reading and often shared his knowledge and ideas with his young niece. He had “a most profound respect” for mathematics. His talks about different mathematical concepts created in the girl’s mind a strong attraction to this “new world of wonders, inaccessible to ordinary mortals.”
Of course, Sofia could not understand those concepts back then, but the more she was learning, the more her talent was developing. In her attempt to dissolve the trigonometric formulas in one physics book (written by a neighbor, professor of physics), she followed the same way that was used historically. Her technique impressed the author so much that he convinced Sofia’s father to send her for some private lessons in St. Petersburg. Being a woman, she was not allowed to attend the university there.
In 1868 Sofia married the young naturalist Vladimir Kovalevsky. They lived for some time in St. Petersburg where she unofficially attended lectures on physiology. Sofia had the approval of the professor, but had to enter through the back stairway so the authorities could not see her. The only other woman in the hall for two hundred people was an elderly midwife.
“The students behaved excellently and didn’t stare,” Sofia wrote in a letter after the first lecture.
In 1869 the Kovalevskys moved to Heidelberg, Germany. In the university there Sofia went from one professor to other, trying to get permission for attending some lectures on mathematics and physics. It was “such an unusual request from a woman” that a special commission had to be set but Sofia eventually received her permit. Soon the professors realized that their new student was “something extraordinary,” not because of her sex but because of her brilliant mind. Everybody in the small university town was talking about the “surprising Russian girl.” Her popularity did not affect her modesty or the strong desire to study.
In 1870 Sofia went to Berlin to work with one of the leading mathematicians in Europe, Professor Karl Weierstass. Under his guidance she wrote three exceptional papers. One of them, The Theory of Partial Differential Equations, was considered as her official doctorate dissertation. The proof in this work is known now as The Theorem of Cauchy-Kovalevsky.
During the last years of her life, Sofia read lectures in the University of Stockholm. She never got the chance to teach in a Russian university, but was acknowledged by the Russian scientific society as the first woman Correspondent Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science.
Sofia Kovalevskaya died from pneumonia in 1891, at the age of forty-one.
1. Sofia Kovalevskaia, A Russian Childhood, trans. and ed. Beatrice Stillman (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1978)
2. Don Kennedy, Little Sparrow (Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press,1983)
3. Ольга Ушакова, Поговорим о Великие Женщинах Века…Сибирское Отделение Российской Академии Наук. n. d. https://www-sbras.nsc.ru/HBC/2000/n01/f10.html
4. Becky Wilson, Sofia Kovalevskaya. Agnes Scott College. Nov. 16, 2005 <https://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/kova.htm>
5. Pilar Ballarin, Margarita M. Birriel, Candida Martinez, Teresa Ortiz.
Histoire des femmes et des mouvements feminists en Europe.
Xantippa. n. d.
Tzetzka lives with her family in Georgia. She loves history and writes biographies and folktale retellings.