Sonya Kovalevsky
1850 – 1891

Sonya Kovalevsky was the “greatest female mathematician prior to the twentieth century”. Her struggle to obtain the best education began opening doors at universities to women. Sonya faced negative attitudes, difficulty in getting an education, and a lack of a support system throughout her life.

Sonya was born to Russian family on January 15, 1850. She was the middle child of an artillery general and was raised in a plush environment. She was exposed to mathematics at an early age because her room was supposedly papered in lecture notes from her father’s courses in Calculus. Sonya also was self-taught. She taught herself trigonometry at fourteen to understand a physics book.

At the age of 18, Sonya entered into a marriage of convenience to Vladimir Kovalevsky in order to go to Germany. Women were not allowed to attend universities in Russia nor could the travel alone. They traveled to Heidelberg University where Sonya excelled in her studies. In 1870, she went to Berlin, hoping to study with Karl Weierstrass at the University of Berlin: however, Weierstrass sent her away with a set of problems so challenging that he never expected to see her again. A week later, she returned with the solutions, impressing him so much that he began privately tutoring her because Germany did not allow women in the university. Sonya worked under Weierstrass for 4 years, earning a doctorate from Gottingen in 1874, becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate from a modern university.

In her life, Sonya experienced many triumphs and tragedies. She lost her father in 1876, causing Sonya to turn to Vladimir. They fell in love and had a daughter in 1878. Five years later, Vladimir took his own life. All of this tragedy renewed her interests in mathematics.

In 1883, Sonya was invited to lecture at Sweden’s Stockholm University, where she gained tenure. She was also named editor of a math journal. In 1888, Sonya achieved “her greatest personal triumph”. She received the Prix Bordin from the French Academy of Science for her paper “On the Rotation of a Solid Body about a Fixed Point”. The paper was so highly regarded the prize money was increased from 3000 to 5000 francs.

Sonya died on February 10, 1891, from depression and pneumonia. She had a striking diversity of talents: a mathematician, a scientist, a writer, and a revolutionary leader. During her career, Sonya published 10 papers in mathematics and mathematical physics. Her motto “Say what you know, do what you must, come what may” illustrates Sonya’s philosophy on life.

Contributed by Andrea Reynolds

References:

  1. Dunham, William. The Mathematical Universe. John Wiley and Sons: New York. 1994.
  2. Eves, Howard. An Introduction to the History of Mathematics. Saunder College Publication. 1983.
  3. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Historical Topics for the Mathematics Classroom. Thirty- First Yearbook: Washington D.C. 1969.

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