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Women in STEM: Sofya Kovalevskaya

"Mathematics opens up a new, wonderful world"

Sofya Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya was a pioneer for women in mathematics. She is the first woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics and become a professor in this field.
Early life

Sofya Kovalevskaya was born on January 15, 1850 in Moscow, the second of three children. From early childhood, she displayed a love for learning and received tutoring in elementary mathematics from Iosif Ignatevich Malevich. When she was 11 years old, the wall of her room had been papered with pages of Ostrogradski's lecture notes on differential and integral analysis, which sparked young Sofya’s interest in mathematics.


Despite her extraordinary talent for mathematics, Sofya Kovalevskaya could not complete her education in Russia, where women were prohibited from attending universities. This is why she contracted a "fictitious marriage” with Vladimir Kovalevskij and moved to Heidelberg, Germany in 1869. There, she obtained permission to attend classes with the professors' approval at the University of Heidelberg. In October 1870, Kovalevskaya moved to Berlin, where she took private lessons with Karl Weierstrass, as the university restricted her from attending classes.

In 1874, she presented three papers—on partial differential equations, on the dynamics of Saturn's rings, and on elliptic integrals — to the University of Göttingen as her doctoral dissertation. Kovalevskaya graduated summa cum laude, making history as the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in mathematics. Her paper on partial differential equations included a proof of the theorem, commonly known as the Cauchy–Kovalevskaya theorem, now an integral part of university curricula worldwide.

In 1878, Sofya Kovalevskaya gave birth to a daughter, and the family returned to Russia. At the Sixth Congress of Natural Scientists in Saint Petersburg in 1880, she delivered an unpublished paper on abelian integrals which she had written as part of her doctoral thesis. In 1883, with the help of the mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler, Kovalevskaya was able to secure a position as a privat-docent at Stockholm University in Sweden, becoming the first woman to hold such a position in academia.


  • The Kovalevskaia Fund, founded in 1985 with the purpose of supporting women in science in developing countries, was named in her honor.

  • The lunar crater Kovalevskaya is named in her honor.

  • Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Stockholm have streets named in honor of Kovalevskaya.

  • The film "Sofya Kovalevskaya" (1956) directed by Iosef Shapiro

  • "Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya" (2002), a biographical novel by mathematician and educator Joan Spicci

  • "Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky" (1983), Don H. Kennedy, Ohio University Press

Sofya Kovalevskaya not only broke gender barriers, but also made remarkable contributions to various areas of mathematics. Her legacy continues to inspire young women, underscoring the power of determination and dedication.


Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850 - 1891) - Biography - MacTutor History of Mathematics

Sofya Kovalevskaya. Wikipedia.

Sofia Kovalevskaya. Written by Becky Wilson, Class of 1997 (Agnes Scott College)

The lecture "Sofya Kovalevskaya. Simply the First." on YouTube (in Russian).


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