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Kovalevsky, Sonya (Sofya) Vasilyevna

women university russian mathematics

(1850–91) Russian mathematician.

Although Sonya’s parents were well-educated members of the nobility, they were not sympathetic to the ‘liberated’ ideas of their young daughters. However, one of the children’s rooms was temporarily wallpapered with the student lecture notes on calculus of their father, a general of engineers. (Years later her tutor in mathematics was surprised at the speed with which Sonya grasped the concepts of the calculus.) A family friend, recognizing her ability, advised that she should study mathematics, which she did through tutorials at the naval academy at St Petersburg during visits there with her mother.

When she was 18 years old Sonya followed a path then favoured by Russian women in search of study abroad: she contracted a marriage of convenience. Her husband, the young palaeontologist V Kovalevsky, took her to Germany. Women there were not admitted to university lectures, but she was tutored by leading physicists at Heidelberg, and in Berlin studied with , who recognized her talent and persuaded the university of Göttingen to consider her published research papers for a doctorate in absentia : she was granted the degree in 1874. She was unable to find an academic post open to women, and so returned to Russia, where her daughter was born. In debt, her husband became involved in fraud, was disgraced and committed suicide in 1883. Soon afterwards, with the help of Weierstrass, she was appointed lecturer at the university of Stockholm and in 1884 was granted a professorship.

Her work in mathematical analysis ranks her as the leading woman mathematician before the 20th-c, with her major contributions being on partial differential equations and on Abelian functions. In applied mathematics she worked on the structure of Saturn’s rings, on propagation of light, and notably on the rotation of a solid body about a fixed point. Her paper on the last of these subjects won prizes from both the French and Swedish Academies, and in 1889 she was elected a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Science. She died 2 years later, at the height of her career, following an influenzal infection.

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