Sofia Kovalevskaya was a Russian mathematician, born in 1850. Her interest in mathematics began as a young girl, when she was encouraged by her uncle, Pyotr Krokovsky. She said she had studied her father’s old calculus notes that had lined the walls of her nursery in lieu of wallpaper, which was in short supply. Her first proper study of mathematics took place with her family’s tutor. However, her father decided to put a stop to her studies in math. When she was 14, she taught herself trigonometry in order to understand a physics textbook that had been written and given to her by her neighbor. Her neighbor, Professor Tyrtov, was impressed with her talent, and convinced her father to allow her to go to school in St. Petersburg.
After graduating from secondary school, Sofia very much wanted to continue at the university level. But as a young, unmarried woman, she was not allowed to travel by herself, and no nearby universities were open to women. In order to be able to travel, she married Vladimir Kovalevsky in 1868. After a few months, they moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where Sofia had to convince the school to let her take lessons without being an official student, since women could not matriculate. In 1870, she decided to move to Berlin to study with renowned mathematician Karl Weierstrass. After she completed a problem set for him, he immediately started privately tutoring her, because the University of Berlin would not allow women in attendance. She studied with him for four years, and wrote three papers: one on partial differential equations, one on Abelian integrals and one on Saturn’s rings. One of these papers, “On the Theory of Partial Differential Equations”, was published in Crelle’s Journal, a leading mathematical journal. In 1874, she received a PhD from the University of Göttingen, but was unable to find work and returned home to Russia.
For the next six years, she was a writer for a St. Petersburg newspaper, reporting on science and technology and doing theater reviews. During this time, her and Vladimir even attempted to fundraise to start a women’s university. She gave birth to a daughter in 1878. Vladimir and Sofia eventually separated, and he committed suicide in 1883.
In 1880, Sofia returned to mathematics, presenting a paper at the Congress of Natural Scientists in St. Petersburg. A former student of Karl Weierstrass, Gosta Mitag-Leffler, was very impressed with her work and tried to find her a professorship. Sofia moved to France, and in 1883, was offered a professorship at the University of Stockholm. In June of 1884, she was appointed to a five year professorship. She was the first woman to hold a full professorship in Northern Europe. During her time at the University of Stockholm, she completed important research and became the editor for the journal Acta Mathematica.
In 1888, she was awarded with the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Sciences for her work on solving the problem of a solid body rotating around a fixed point. All entries were submitted anonymously, and her entry was deemed so important that the prize was increased by 2000 francs. This prize gave way to the appointment of a lifetime chair of mathematics at the University of Stockholm. She also gained membership to the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In 1891, Sofia died of influenza, at the height of her career. Sofia was an extraordinary mathematician who helped pave the way for women who came after her, by proving that women deserved to be taken seriously in mathematics. She was a women’s rights advocate who struggled to obtain her own education, but did what she needed to in order to study.