Sofia Vasilevna Kovalevskaia

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Kovalevskaia, Sofia Vasil’evna


Born Jan. 3 (15), 1850, in Moscow; died Jan. 29 (Feb. 10), 1891, in Stockholm. Russian mathematician, writer, and publicist; the first woman to be elected, on the recommendation of Academicians P. L. Chebyshev, V. G. Imshenetskii, V. Ia. Buniakovskii, a corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1889).

Kovalevskaia received a comprehensive education and early revealed her superior mathematical abilities. In St. Petersburg beginning in 1866, she took lessons in mathematics from the famous teacher A. N. Strannoliubskii. At that time, women were not admitted to the University of St. Petersburg. In 1868, in order to be able to study science, she entered into a fictitious marriage (which later became factual) with V. O. Kovalevskii, and in 1869 she went to Heidelberg, where she studied mathematics. In 1870 she moved to Berlin, where she worked for four years under K. Weierstrass, who agreed to give her private lessons (women were also not admitted to the University of Berlin). On the basis of three of her works, which were presented by Weierstrass, the University of Göttingen in 1874 awarded her a Ph.D. degree, without seeing her. That same year Kovalevskaia returned to Russia but was unable to obtain a position at the University of St. Petersburg. She then gave up scientific work for almost six years and took up literary work, contributing to newspapers. In 1880 she moved to Moscow, but she was not permitted to take the master’s examinations at the university. In 1881 she went to Berlin and then to Paris, where she tried to obtain a position as a professor at the Higher Courses for Women. In 1883 she returned to Russia.

In November 1883, Kovalevskaia left for Sweden, having received an invitation from the Swedish mathematician G. Mittag-Leffler to occupy the post of privatdocent at the University of Stockholm. In 1884 she was appointed a professor at the University of Stockholm, and over eight years she taught 12 courses. She was also a member of the editorial board of the Swedish Journal Acta mathematica. In 1888 she wrote The Problem of the Rotation of a Solid About an Immovable Point, for which the Paris Academy of Sciences awarded her a prize. For a second work on the rotation of a solid, written the following year, she was awarded a prize by the Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Kovalevskaia was also the author of the short story “The Female Nihilist” (1884), the drama Struggle for Happiness (1887, together with the Swedish writer A. C. Leffler), and the family chronicle Recollections of Childhood (1890), where she narrated about life on a country estate in the 1860’s, about her sister A. V. Korvin-Krukovskaia (married name, Jaclard) who afterward participated in the Paris Commune, and about F. M. Dostoevsky.


Nauchnye raboty. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948. (Contains a bibliography.)
Vospominaniia detstva. Nigilistka. [Introduction by V. A. Putintsev.] Moscow, 1960.
Vospominaniia i pis’ma. Moscow, 1961.


Polubarinova-Kochina, P. Ia. Zhizn’ i deiatel’nost S. V. Kovalevskoi. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.
Pamiati S. V. Kovalevskoi. Moscow, 1951. (Collection of articles.)
Leffler, A. Sofia Kovalevskaia. Vospominaniia. St. Petersburg, 1893. (Translated from Swedish.)
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.