Sofia Kovalevskaya

Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (Со́фья Васи́льевна Ковале́вская, also known as Sophie Kowalevskineé Sofia Vasilyevna Korvin-Krukovskaya, 15 January 1850 – 10 February 1891) was a Russian mathematician and author.

She was educated at home by private tutors. During her teenage years, Sofia was introduced to the progressive ideas of the Narodniks (considered the intellectual and political forebears of the socialists, the Narodniks were a Russian movement involved in revolutionary agitation against tsarism during the 1860’s).

Given the fact that, at the time, women were not allowed to attend universities in Russia and needed permission from their fathers or husbands to go abroad, Sofia contracted a sham marriage in 1868 and moved to Germany to continue her studies.

She attended courses in physics and mathematics at the University of Heidelberg, and took private lessons with a professor in Berlin, where the university did not allow her to audit classes. In 1869, while in London for a brief visit, Sofia was invited to attend George Eliot’s Sunday salons.

In 1871, she traveled to Paris to attend the injured in the Commune, as well as to help her sister, the Russian socialist and feminist revolutionary Anne Jaclard (néé Anna Vasilyevna Korvin-Krukovskaya), who had been active in the Paris Commune. Jaclard also participated in the First International, was a friend of Karl Marx, and was once courted by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who published two of her stories in his literary journal, The Epoch. Some say that the character of Aglaya Epanchina in The Idiot was based on Jaclard.

In 1874, Sofia earned a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude, at the University of Göttingen – the first woman to do so in an European university. In 1878, she gave birth to a daughter. In 1883, Sofia started working as as a lecturer at Stockholm University, where she met the Swedish writer Anne Charlotte Edgren-Leffler, with whom she then had a close friendship.

In 1884, Sofia became assistant professor at the university, and started working as editor of the scientific journal Acta Mathematica. In 1888, she won the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science, and in the following year she secured the full professorship at Stockholm University – the first woman to hold such a position in Europe.

Kovalevskaya died of pneumonia in 1891.

Books

Novel

  • Nihilist Girl, by Sofia Kovalevskaya, tr. Natasha Kolchevska and Mary Zirin (2001. Original: Нигилистка, 1884)

Memoir

  • A Russian Childhood, tr. Beatrice Stillman (1978. Original: Воспоминания детства, 1890)

Books about her

  • Sonya Kovalevsky; a biographyby Anne Charlotte Leffler (1892)
  • Little Sparrow, a Portrait of Sofia Kovalevsky, by Don H. Kennedy (1983)
  • The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya, by Roger Cooke (1984)
  • Love and Mathematics: Sofia Kovalevskaya, by Pelageya Kochina (1985)
  • A convergence of lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia: scientist, writer, revolutionary, by Ann Hibner Koblitz (1993)
  • Science, Women and Revolution in Russia, by by Ann Hibner Koblitz (2000)
  • Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya, by Joan Spicci (2002, biographical novel)
  • Sofia appears as a minor character in the novel Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon (2006)
  • Sofia is featured as a main character in the short-story Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro (2009)

Films

  • Sofya Kovalevskaya (1956, IMDb) directed by Iosef Shapiro
  • Berget På Månens Baksida (‘A Hill on the Dark Side of the Moon’, 1983, IMDb) directed by Lennart Hjulström
  • Sofya Kovalevskaya (1985, TV movie, IMDb) directed by Ayan Shakhmaliyeva

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this story.

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    1. I am glad you enjoyed 🙂

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