Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) was a Russian mathematician. From childhood she showed an exceptional grasp of mathematics, especially calculus. She was encouraged in her private study by her parents. However what she could learn on her own was limited and Kovalevskaya wanted to study at a University.
At that time women were not allowed to attend the universities in Russia and most fathers, including Kovalevskaya's, were unwilling to give consent to daughters to study abroad. To get around her father's refusal she contracted a "fictitious marriage" with Vladimir Kovalevsky, a paleontologist. In 1869 the newlyweds left Russia and settled in Heidelberg, Germany. This was where Kovalevskaya was to fulfill her dream of a higher education. By the spring of 1874, Kovalevskaya had written three doctoral dissertations. Her work was submitted to the University of Göttingen and she was awarded her doctoral summa cum laude in the fall of 1874, becoming the first woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics. Kovalevskaya was offered a position at Stockholm University in 1884.
Five years later, Kovalevskaya became the first female mathematician to hold a chair at a European university. In 1888, Kovalevskaya's paper on the study of the motion of a rigid body received the prestigious Prix Bordin award given by the French Académie Royale des Sciences. Unfortunately her life was cut short when she died in 1891 of influenza. She was only 41 years old and at the height of her mathematical career. Although she published only ten papers during her lifetime, Kovalevskaya's work has withstood the test of time. There are many mathematics awards as well as a lunar crater named in her honor. To learn more about Sofia Kovalevskaya, check out Little Sparrow : a Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky.
This entry is part of MPL's National Women's History Month.