Sofya Vaslyevna Kovalevskaya By: Estrella Villela

Early Life

Sofya Vaslyevna Kovalevskaya, also known as Sonya Kovalevsky, was born on January 15th, 1850 (166 years before me) in Moscow to noble parents Vasily Korvin-Krukovsky (father), a general in the Russian army, and Velizaveta Shubert (mother). At age 11, she became very interested in calculus and even hanged up notes on differential and integral analysis.

Velizaveta Shurbert ( Left) Vasily Korvin-Kruvosky ( right) 

Marriage of Convenience

When it was time for Sonya to enter the university, she was ambitious to study mathematics, but knowing she could not accomplish her goal in Russia, she created a plan to study at a university in Western Europe. To do this, she had to travel with permission from her father, but because she was not married she was not allowed to leave Russia. She then decided to marry Vladimir Kovalevsky, a paleontologist, for convenience.

Arriving in Germany

In 1869, Vladimir and Sonya left Russia to move to Heidelberg, Germany. When they arrived she was informed that women couldn't enroll to study at the universities, however, she stood in the entrance of a university till they allowed her to enrol for courses about physics and mathematics.

Moving to Berlin

In 1871, Sofia moved to Berlin where she studied privately with a calculus expert named Karl Weierstrass. By 1874, she had written three papers. Later that year, on Karl's demand, the University of Göttingen awarded her (in her absence) a doctorate, summa cum laude, for her work on partial differential equations.

Karl Weierstrass ( left) University of Göttingen (Right)

Six year period off from work

Later on Sonya was told to teach mathematics to an all girls school academy, but this is not what Sonya wanted, so she returned to Russia where the situation was the same. She gave up teaching and university for six years, however, she did have a baby girl with Vladimir who she named, Sofya. Vladimir and Sonya also used to pull a lot of scams when dealing with business, which lead to Vladimir's death in 1883 when they were uncovered.

Resuming her work

A little after her husband's death, she resumed her career in mathematics and arrived at a conference in Europe where she met a mathematician who helped her receive a position as a professor. This meant that she was the first women since Laura Bassi and Maria Gaetana Agnesi, in the 18th century, to hold a chair at a European university.

While at the University of Stockholm, Sofia was appointed editor of a new journal, Acta Mathematica, and also became involved in the organisation of international conferences. Her greatest triumph came in 1888 when her paper ‘On the rotation of a solid body about a fixed point’ won the prestigious Prix Bordin, organised by the French Academy of Sciences. So impressed was the Academy by the work that they increased the prize money from 3 000 to 5 000 francs. This is $3065.65 to $5105.43 in U.S. money! Her work was more modern because existing solutions for the motion of a rigid body around a fixed point had been developed for cases where the body is symmetric; Sofia’s paper developed a theory for an unsymmetrical body, where the centre of mass is not on an axis in the body.

Affair & Death

In 1888 she began an affair with Maxim Kovalevsky, the nephew of Vladimir, and in 1891 she travelled to Paris to meet him. While there she got influenza, complicated by pneumonia, which led to her death on the 10th of February.


In Sonya's short life, she only wrote ten papers on mathematics and mathematical physics, many of these included ground- breaking theories. Her early work on the theory of differential equations was a valuable contribution to mathematics and led to what is now known as the Cauchy-Kovalevsky theorem for analytic partial differential equations. Kovalevskaya’s other great breakthrough was her paper on the rotation of an unsymmetrical solid body around a fixed point, now known as the Kovalevsky top. It won her a prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1889. Sofia was able to overcome the general objections to women in science by demonstrating her intelligence and her groundbreaking work in mathematics. She was rewarded with a professorship and a role editing a mathematical journal. Perhaps her most lasting influence, however, was the example she set for other women trying to study what they love.

Created By
Estrella Villela

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