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Stamps of Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya

Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (Russian Софья Васильевна Ковалевская). (January 15, 1850 - February 10, 1891), was the first major Russian female mathematician, and also the first woman who was appointed to a full professorship in Europe 1889 (Sweden). Her first name is sometimes given as Sonya. There are many alternative spellings used for her names; she herself used Sophie Kowalevski (or occasionally Kowalevsky) in her publications.

Life and career

Sofia Kovalevskaya was born in Moscow, Russia of an artillery officer and a German scholar, being the second of three children. Her father nurtured her interest in mathematics and hired Strannoliubskii to tutor her in calculus. However, at the time she could not get a university degree except by going to Europe with the permission of her father or her husband. Thus, she entered a marriage of convenience with Vladimir O. Kovalevsky, then a young paleontology student, with whom she left Russia, in company also of her sister Anyuta.

Kovalevskaya was admitted to the University of Heidelberg, Germany, which allowed her to study as long as the professors involved approved. After two years of mathematical studies at Heidelberg, she moved to the University of Berlin, where she had to take private lessons from Karl Weierstrass since the university didn't admit women at all. Kovalevskaya prepared three different doctoral dissertations before settling on a fourth one that, with the support of Weierstrass, earned her a doctorate summa cum laude from the University of Göttingen in 1874. This meant that her achievements were so impressive, that the University did not require her to attend any lectures or examinations in order to award her the degree. Her result, now known as the Cauchy-Kowalevski theorem, was published in (Kowalevski 1875). Thus, Sofia Kovalevskaya became the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in mathematics.

The return of the Kovalevskys to Russia was futile, as no university would hire them with their European degrees. Returning to Germany, they consummated their marriage leading to the birth of a daughter, Sofia “Fufa.” When the girl turned one year old, Kovalevskaya resumed her work in mathematics.

After Kovalevsky's suicide in 1883, Kovalevskaya was offered a position as a private docent at the Stockholm University in Sweden. The next year she was on tenure-track and began editing Acta Mathematica. In 1888 she won the French Prix Bordin for her work (Kowalevski 1989) on the Kovelevskaya top, which included analysis of the dynamics of Saturns rings. In 1889 she won a prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the same year was appointer professor in Stockholm University, while she also achieved a chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences. She had never been offered a professorship in Russia, but had received other honors from her homeland when she died of pneumonia at forty-one.


Sonia Kovalevsky High School Mathematics Day is a program named after Kovalevsky and is a grant-making initiative of the Association for Women in Mathematics(AWM), funding workshops around the country which encourage girls to explore mathematics.

The Sonia Kovalevsky Lecture is sponsored annually by the AWM, and is intended to highlight significant contributions of women to applied or computational mathematics. Past honorees have included Irene Fonesca (2006), Ingrid Daubechies (2005), Joyce R. McLaughlin (2004) and Linda R. Petzold (2003).

The Kovalevsakya crater on the Moon is named in her honour.

In Film

Sofia Kovalevskaya has been the subject of two Russian film biographies.

* Sofya Kovalevskaya (1956)

Directed by Iosef Shapiro, starring Yelena Yunger, Lev Kosolov and Tatyana Sezenyevskaya

* Sofya Kovalevskaya (1985 TV)

Directed by Ayan Shakhmaliyeva, starring Yelena Safonova, Vladimir Letenkov, and Natalya Sayov.

Selected publications

* Kowalevski, Sophie (1875), "Zur Theorie der partiellen Differentialgleichung", Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik 80: 1-32, <> (The surname given in the paper is "von Kowalevsky", which may be a misprint.)

* Kowalevski, Sophie (1884), "Über die Reduction einer bestimmten Klasse Abel’scher Integrale 3ten Ranges auf elliptische Integrale", Acta Mathematica 4 (1): 393-414, ISSN 1871-2509, DOI 10.1007/BF02418424

* Kowalevski, Sophie (1885), "Über die Brechung des Lichtes In Cristallinischen Mitteln", Acta Mathematica 6 (1): 249-304, ISSN 1871-2509, DOI 10.1007/BF02400418

* Kowalevski, Sophie (1889), "Sur le probleme de la rotation d'un corps solide autour d'un point fixe", Acta Mathematica 12 (1): 177-232, ISSN 1871-2509, DOI 10.1007/BF02592182

* Kowalevski, Sophie (1890), "Sur une propriété du système d'équations différentielles qui définit la rotation d'un corps solide autour d'un point fixe", Acta Mathematica 14 (1): 81-93, ISSN 1871-2509, DOI 10.1007/BF02413316

* Kowalevski, Sophie (1891), "Sur un théorème de M. Bruns", Acta Mathematica 15 (1): 45-52, ISSN 1871-2509


* Roger Cooke: The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya (Springer-Verlag, 1984)

* Sofya Kovalevskaya: A Russian Childhood (Springer-Verlag, 1978; translated and introduced by Beatrice Stillman)

* Ann Hibner Koblitz: A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia -- Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary (Rutgers University Press, 1983)

* A. H. Koblitz, Sofia Vasilevna Kovalevskaia in Louise S. Grinstein (Editor), Paul J. Campbell (Editor) (1987). Women of Mathematics: A Bio-Bibliographic Sourcebook. Greenwood Press, New York. ISBN 978-0313248498.

This article incorporates material from Sofia Kovalevskaya on PlanetMath, which is licensed under the GFDL.


* Sofia Kovalevskaya at the Mathematics Genealogy Project

* O'Connor, John J; Edmund F. Robertson "Sofia Kovalevskaya". MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.

* Women's History - Sofia Kovalevskaya

* Brief biography of Sofia Kovalevskaya by Yuriy Belits. University of Colorado at Denver, March 17, 2005.

* Biography (in Russian)

* Association for Women in Mathematics

* Works by or about Sofia Kovalevskaya in libraries (WorldCat catalog)


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