Sofia Kovalévskaya: Biography of a Daring Mathematician

February 21, 2020
Sofia Kovalévskaya was an extraordinary woman who made important contributions to math and physics. She was also a writer and left an autobiography named Nihilist Woman, as well as a play. A woman ahead of her time, she was a true pioneer.

Sofia Kovalévskaya was a notable woman for her contributions to the fields of math and physics as much as for her impressive tenacity. She was born into a world in which women faced closed doors in education. They couldn’t even travel without permission from their fathers or husbands.

The most interesting thing about Sofia Kovalévskaya’s life is precisely the way she navigated all the limits society imposed on her. She achieved her dreams and worked on her projects in spite of those limits. Sofia was actually the first woman to complete a university education. She was also the first known female university professor.

“It’s impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet at soul.”

-Sofia Kovalévskaya-

Without really meaning to, Kovalévskaya became a pioneer of feminism. She showed that determination is an unstoppable force that sometimes helps people achieve what seems impossible.

Sofia Kovalévskaya, in addition to her important findings in the scientific field, penetrated the world of writing as well. She dedicated herself to poetry, the exposure of science, and even contributed to astronomy.

An open book on the floor.

Sofia Kovalévskaya’s childhood

Sofia Kovalévskaya was born into a very peculiar family. On her mother’s side, she was a descendant of the king of Hungary, Matías Corvino. However, her grandfather married a gypsy. As a result of this, they didn’t allow him to have the title he was entitled to.

On her father’s side, she had several famous relatives such as cartographer Friedrich Schubert and astronomer Theodor von Schubert.

Sofia was born on January 15, 1850, in Moscow, Russia. Her older sister was the famous socialist Anna Jaclard. When she was very young, she moved to Belarus with her family. Her new home was highly influenced by scientific knowledge. Two of her uncles and her father instilled in her a great love for reading and researching.

Upon their arrival to Belarus, the family discovered that a wall in Sofia’s room was missing pieces of wallpaper. Thus, they decided to solve the issue by putting up pages from a random book over to cover those holes. The book was about differential calculus and had been chosen randomly. The little girl began to study and read the pages with surprise and interest.

A brilliant girl

Even though her father hired private teachers to give her lessons, he was startled to see how quickly she advanced. He was terrified of “wise women”. Therefore, he cut off her education. However, the young girl kept studying on her own and even taught herself algebra.

Famous writer Fiódor Dostoyevski courted Sofia’s sister, even though Sofia was completely in love with him. He was her impossible love.

Both Sofia and her sister knew that the only way to get some kind of freedom was by marrying. During that time, many women agreed to “white marriages”; in other words, marriages of convenience.

During that time, it was common to come to an agreement with someone for a formal wedding and then have each person live completely independently. Anna, Sofia’s older sister, wanted to do this with paleontologist Vladimir Kovalevsky. However, he preferred to marry Sofia, who was only 18 years old.

Writings from Sofia's notebook.

A unique woman

Just as expected, the marriage gave Sofia new opportunities. They first moved to Heidelberg, and then to Berlin.

There, she met famous mathematician and analyst Karl Weierstrass, who didn’t (at first) believe in her talent. When he realized the degree of her passion and intelligence, he asked for her to be accepted as a student at the university. The university refused, so he decided to give her private classes himself.

Thanks to Weierstrass’ support, Sofia graduated with a doctoral degree. He made it possible for her to present her thesis without being physically present. Then, she started a long journey to find work that would allow her to develop her talents.

Professional life

About 10 years after she graduated, her friend Gösta Mittag-Leffler helped her get a position as a professor at Stockholm University.

By that time, Sofia had a daughter and her husband had committed suicide. Her condition as a widow helped to diminish the resistance to hiring her.

Throughout her life, she received various awards. She was one of the first women to join the Russian Academy of Sciences. She died early at the age of 41 from pneumonia. One of the craters of the moon is named after her, in homage to her great contributions.

Sofia was one of many brilliant female figures that history tried to hide. She’s barely mentioned in schools, but her accomplishments were more impressive than most of her contemporaries. She was one of those dazzling minds that sometimes pop up in the history of humanity.

Kovalevskaya, S. (2001). Vida y obra matemática de Sofía Kovalevskaia (Vol. 4). Anthropos Editorial.