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Sofia Kovalevskaya’s groundbreaking work in mathematics greatly influenced the scientific community in the late 1800s and still to this day. She also broke boundaries becoming the first woman to be a full professor at a university in Northern Europe and to serve as an editor for a scientific journal.

Family Biography

Sofia Kovalevskaya (sometimes known Sonia Kovalevskyi[1]) as was born Sofia Korvin-Krukovskaya in Moscow on January 15, 1850 to parents, Lieutenant General Vasily Vasilyevich Korvin-Krukovsky and Yelizaveta Fedorovna Shubert.[2] They provided her a private tutor, Y. I. Malevich, from Poland from a young age.

Supposedly the family did not have wallpaper to cover young Sofia's nursery walls and instead used her father’s old calculus notes regarding Ostrogradsky.[3] Her parents observed her natural abilities for mathematics and found her a calculus tutor named A. N. Strannoliubskii from St. Petersburg, renowned for his advocacy of women in higher education.[4]

Sofia’s talents could not be pursued in Russia since universities excluded women at this time. Her father would not let her leave home and she needed his permission, or a husband’s, to attend a university in another country. So she devised a plan with paleontology student, Vladimir Kovalevskij, for a fake marriage and they left Russia in 1867 for Heidelberg, Germany.[5]

Academic Struggles and Success

When Sofia Kovalevskaya arrived in Heidelberg, she discovered the University also did not allow women to study. She persuaded the University to let her audit classes with professors like Robert Bunsen, Gustav Kirchhoff, and Hermann von Helmholtz. Through her husband, she also met Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, George Elliot, and Herbert Spencer. All who greatly influenced her political and social ideals.[6]

Two years later Sofia moved to Berlin, where she studied for four years under Karl Weierstrass, a world famous mathematician. She quotes of the time, "These studies had the deepest possible influence on my entire career in mathematics. They determined finally and irrevocably the direction I was to follow in my later scientific work: all my work has been done precisely in the spirit of Weierstrass.”[7] She presented three papers in 1874 to the University of Göttingen about elliptic integrals, Saturn’s rings, and partial differential equations.

Sofia Kovalevskaya earned her doctorate summa cum laude, in absentia, meaning without having attended any of the classes, becoming the first woman in Europe to hold a Doctorate in Mathematics. The facts in her paper on partial differential equations became known as the Cauchy-Kovalevskaya theorem and was published in Crelle’s journal.[8]

Post-Doctoral Achievements

Sofia Kovalevskaya pursued writing, including theater reviews, fiction, and scientific newspaper articles, after the birth of her daughter in 1874.[9] She began teaching at Sweden’s Stockholm University through the assistance of Gösta Mittag-Leffler after her husband’s suicide in 1883.[10]

Sofia became the first female editor of a scientific journal in 1884 for the mathematical journal, Acta Mathematica. In 1885, Sofia’s appointment to Chair of Mechanics at Stockholm University made her the first woman to do so at any university in Northern Europe.[11] She also won the French Academy of Science’s Prix Bordin in 1888 for her work now known as the “Kovalevskaya Top”.[12]

Death and Legacy

Sofia Kovalevskaya (aka Sonia Kovalevsky) died of influenza on February 10, 1891. She published 10 scientific papers, several plays, a memoir, and a partly autobiographical novel.[13] The Association for Women in Mathematics funds mathematical workshops for young women across the United States on Sonya Kovalevsky High School Mathematics Days.[14]




Cooke, R. (1984) The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya. Springer-Verlag.

Koblitz, A. H. (2000). Science, women, and revolution in Russia. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Harwood Academic.

Rappaport, Karen D. "S. Kovalevsky: A Mathematical Lesson." The American Mathematical Monthly 88 (October 1981): 564-573.


  1. Rappaport, 1981, p. 564
  2. Marie-Louise Dubreil-Jacotin. "Women mathematicians". JOC/EFR.
  3. Rappaport, 1981, p. 564
  4. Koblitz, 2000, p. 65
  5. Cooke, R., 1984
  6. Cooke, R., 1984
  7. Rappaport, 1981, p. 566
  8. Rappaport, 1981, p. 566
  9. Cooke, R., 1984
  10. Rappaport, 1981, p. 567
  11. Rappaport, 1981, p. 569
  12. Cooke, R., 1984, p. 159
  13. Rappaport, 1981, p. 569
  14. Kovalevsky Days. (n.d.).[1]

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