Sonya Kovalevsky (known also as Sofia Kovalevskaya) was the middle child of
well-educated members of the Russian nobility. She was educated by tutors and
governesses and became attracted to mathematics at a very young age. It was
under the family tutor that Sonya undertook her first proper study of
mathematics and she says that it was as his pupil that
I began to feel an attraction for my mathematics so intense that I
started to neglect my other studies.
In 1869, as a young married woman, Sonya traveled to Heidelberg to study
mathematics and the natural sciences, only to discover that women could not
matriculate at the university. Eventually she persuaded the university authorities
to allow her to attend lectures unofficially, provided that she obtain the
permission of each of her lecturers. Sonya studied there successfully for three
semesters attracting the attention of her teachers with her uncommon mathematical
In 1871 Kovalevsky moved to Berlin to expand her studies but was refused
permission to attend courses at the university. However, this turned out to
be in her favor as the brilliant German mathematician Karl Weierstrass agreed
to tutor her privately. By the spring of 1874, Kovalevsky had completed three
papers each of which Weierstrass deemed worthy of a doctorate. In 1874 Kovalevsky
was granted her doctorate, summa cum laude, from G`ttingen University. Despite
this doctorate and letters of recommendation from Weierstrass, Kovalevsky was
unable to obtain a university academic position. Her rejections resulted in a
six-year period during which time she undertook no research.
From 1880 on, Kovalevsky increasingly returned to her study of mathematics
and in 1884, following the suicide of her husband, she was able to secure a
university position in Stockholm. In 1889 Kovalevsky became only the third
woman to hold a chair at a European university. She had found her place in Sweden.
At the University of Stockholm, Kovalevskyıs extraordinary mathematical talent
and literary gifts were revealed with a special brilliance. She lectured with
great success on selected mathematical topics for several years. While in Sweden
she created her principal mathematical work, " On the Rotation of a Solid
Body about a Fixed Point," which became a sensation and was awarded the Prix
Borodin of the French Academy of Sciences in 1889.
In early 1891, at the height of her mathematical powers and reputation,
Kovalevsky died of influenza complicated by pneumonia.