Sofya Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya. January 3 (15), 1850 – January 29 (February 10), 1891. Russian mathematician and mechanic, foreign corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. The first female professor in Russia and Northern Europe and the first female professor of mathematics in the world.


Life and Work:

1. “I inherited a passion for science from my ancestor, Hungarian king Mattias Corvin, my love for mathematics, music, and poetry from my mother’s grandfather, the astronomer Schubert; [...] from my Gypsy great-grandmother – my love for vagrancy [...] the rest – from Russia.” The author of these lines is the world’s first female professor of mathematics, Sofya Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya. She was destined to glorify Russian science. And to convince the world that women can do mathematics just as well as men.


2. The 1850, parish register of the Znamenskaya Church at the Petrovsky Gate in Moscow, includes the following entry: “On January 3 she was born, on 17 – baptized Sofya; her parents –Artillery Colonel Vasily Vasilyevich Krukovskoy and his legal wife Yelizaveta Fyodorovna; the husband is of the Orthodox confession, and the wife is a Lutheran. Godparents: retired Artillery Lieutenant Semyon Vasilyevich Krukovskoy and provedor Vasily Semyonovich Krukovskoy’s daughter, the maiden Anna Vasilyevna.”


3. Sofya Korvin-Krukovskaya’s spent her childhood in her father’s estate, Polibino. It is rumored that when her parents’ house was being renovated, there was not enough wallpaper for the nursery, and one of the walls was covered with sheets from a math textbook.


4. Sofya got carried away: she was constantly adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing something. Her father was upset: why would a girl need science? General Korvin-Krukovsky adhered to traditional views and thought that she was destined to getting married and having children. However, he gave his daughter an education – hired a home teacher.


5. Under Iosif Malevich’s guidance, Sofya completed the men’s gymnasium course in eight years.


6. Since childhood, Sofya Korvin-Krukovskaya wrote poetry, and her teacher was sure that she would plunge into literature. But the girl chose mathematics.


7. In her youth, Sofya Kovalevskaya got acquainted with Fyodor Dostoevsky and even fell in love with the 44-year-old writer. But he proposed to her elder sister and was refused.


8. In 1860s, it was impossible for a female to enter a university in Russia. She had to leave the country, which required her father’s or husband’s permission. Vasily Vasilyevich Korvin-Krukovsky did not give his consent. And then the girl dared to enter a fake marriage.


9. Shortly after her wedding to the natural science student Vladimir Kovalevsky, Sofya wrote to her sister, “It is a pity that he is not a Muslim, otherwise he would have married both of us.” The fake marriage eventually turned into a real, albeit not very happy, one. In 1878, the couple had a daughter, Sofya.


10. Females were not particularly welcome in foreign universities either. According to the rules of the University of Berlin, women could not attend lectures, but the father of modern mathematical analysis, Karl Weierstrass, personally supervised Kovalevskaya’s classes in 1870-1874. According to Weierstrass, three excellent works were enough so that she was forgiven for belonging to the gentle sex.


11. Sofya Kovalevskaya and her husband sympathized with socialist views and supported the revolutionary struggle. In April 1871, the couple moved to besieged Paris, where Sofya cared for wounded communards, and later even took part in rescuing the Paris Commune leader Victor Jacquelard from prison – he was her sister Anna’s husband.


12. In 1874, at the University of Göttingen Sofya Kovalevskaya defended her dissertation which was unassumingly titled On the Theory of Differential Equations and obtained a doctor of philosophy degree.


13. Kovalevskaya dreamed of working in Russia. But all graduates of foreign universities were offered to teach arithmetic in lower grades. “Unfortunately, I’m not very good with the multiplication table,” Sofya Vasilyevna joked sadly.


14. After multiple troubles and her husband’s suicide – he turned out to be an excellent paleontologist, but a poor businessman and did not survive the bankruptcy – Kovalevskaya went to Berlin to visit her teacher, Karl Weierstrass. He used his significant influence and considerable connections to get his talented student a position at the University of Stockholm. In 1884, Kovalevskaya moved to Stockholm.


15. Professor Kovalevskaya had to give lectures in Swedish from the second year of her work. She managed: she had learned Swedish so well that she began to write in it – both scientific and literary works.


16. In 1888, Sofya Kovalevskaya was awarded the Bordin Prize of the Paris Academy of Sciences for discovering the third classical case of completely integrable rigid body motion around a fixed point. When submitting her work for the competition, Kovalevskaya came up with the motto “Say what you know, do what you must, come what may.” Her second work on the same topic was awarded the prize of the Swedish Academy of Sciences.


17. After receiving two prestigious awards from the Paris and Swedish Academies of Sciences, Sofya Kovalevskaya was recognized at home and elected a corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. But she was still not allowed to attend the meetings, because it was “not the custom of the Academy” to allow a woman to be there.


18. Mathematicians are familiar with the Kovalevskaya system and Kovalevskaya theorem – and they are only a part of Sofya Vasilyevna’s contribution to science.


19. In 1891, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Denmark. In an effort to avoid infection, “Professor Sofya” changed her route and made part of the way from Berlin to Stockholm in an open carriage. The decision turned out to be fatal: on the way, Kovalevskaya caught a cold complicated with pneumonia. In February, she was buried in Northern Cemetery in Stockholm.


20. The scope of mathematics was too narrow for Sofya Vasilyevna and she took up literature. One of the especially well-known pieces from her literary heritage is the play The Struggle for Happiness. Two Parallel Dramas, where she applies a scientific approach based on Poincaré’s works to art.


21. At one time, the Minister of Education promised Sofya Kovalevskaya that even her daughter would not live to see the time when women in Russia would start teaching at universities. He was wrong: Sofya Vladimirovna Kovalevskaya, a doctor and translator of her mother’s works from Swedish, died in Moscow in 1952, when women professors were no longer a rarity in the country, and Lina Solomonovna Stern was already elected an academician.