Mathematician who excelled in spite of prejudice

Sonya Kovalevskaya was a brilliant academic who overcame many obstacles to get to the very top

Sonya Kovalevskaya (1850-1891). Editor of Acta Mathematica, the first woman on the board of a scientific journal

Sonya Kovalevskaya (1850-1891). Editor of Acta Mathematica, the first woman on the board of a scientific journal


In the 19th century it was extremely difficult for a woman to achieve distinction in the academic sphere and virtually impossible in the field of mathematics. However a few brilliant women managed to overcome all the obstacles and prejudice and reach the very top. The most notable of these was the remarkable Russian woman, Sonya Kovalevskaya.

Kovalevskaya was born in Moscow in 1850, into an aristocratic and intellectually gifted family. When their house at Palibino was redecorated there was insufficient wallpaper and the nursery walls were covered with lithographed lecture notes on calculus that her father had retained from his student days. She recalled reading these “mathematical hieroglyphics” with interest and wonderment and they provided inspiration and impetus for her later career.

There was no opportunity for academic advancement in Russia for Kovalevskaya. Moreover, it was difficult for a single woman to travel unescorted. So, when she was just 18, a marriage of convenience was arranged with a young palaeontologist, Vladimir Kovalevsky. The following year, the couple travelled to Heidelberg, where Kovalevskaya obtained permission to attend lectures at the university.

In 1870 she moved to Berlin. Regulations there prohibited her from auditing lectures but she received private tuition from the great mathematician Karl Weierstrass. He was enormously impressed by her dazzling intelligence.

The professor, who was 55 and unmarried, was also smitten by the luminescent vivacity of the 20-year-old Kovalevskaya and they developed a warm personal relationship.

Under the supervision of Weierstrass, she began research on partial differential equations. In 1874 she was awarded a doctoral degree summa cum laude by Göttingen university. Her work, which extended that of the Frenchman Augustin Cauchy, is known today as the Cauchy-Kovalevskaya Theorem.

Kovalevskaya and Vladimir agreed that the nominal marriage could become a genuine one and the couple returned to St Petersburg, where they had a daughter in 1878. But opportunities in Russia were few and, when Kovalevsky’s business affairs went awry, he took his own life.

At that time, European universities were at last beginning to open their doors to women. Kovalevskaya obtained a temporary lectureship in Stockholm and earned a reputation as a superlative teacher.

She won the prestigious Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science for her research. The problem she solved is described in advanced mechanics texts as the Kovalevskaya top, an asymmetric gyroscope, one of the very few problems in dynamics that can be completely solved. The judges were so impressed that they increased the prize from 3,000 to 5,000 francs.

Her brilliant research secured her a professorship in Stockholm. She was elected a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, smashing another gender barrier. She also became an editor of Acta Mathematica, the first woman on the board of a scientific journal. But her career was to be cut short. Shocked by her husband’s suicide, she was shattered by the early and sudden death of her sister Aniuta. She became ill with pneumonia and died, aged just 41 in 1891.

Kovalevskaya’s mathematical work is of enduring value. She was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in mathematics and the first female professor of mathematics.

She was a leader in the movement for the emancipation of women and did much to improve the access of women to the academic arena.
Peter Lynch is professor of meteorology at University College Dublin.
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