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Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya
Coфья Bacильeвнa Koвaлeвcкaя

Russian mathematician and author. Born 1850, died 1891.

Kovalevskaya was born into a Russian noble family, the Krukovskys, and developed an early interest in mathematics. Self-educated to a large extent, she had to enter into a pro forma marriage with Vladimir Kovalevski, a palaeontologist, in order to be able to travel abroad for further studies (Russian women, at the time, could not legally live apart from their families without permission of their guardian or husband).

In 1869, Kovalevskaya travelled to Heidelberg in Germany to study - only to learn that women were not admitted at the university there. After auditing classes, without being matriculated, for a year and a half, she went to Berlin in 1871, where she studied with the distinguished mathematician Karl Theodor Wilhelm Weierstrass. Under Weierstrass' tutelage1 (women were not admitted to Berlin's university, either), she completed, by 1874, three papers, each of which was considered (by Weierstrass) worthy of a doctorate.

Finally, in 1874, Kovalevskaya was granted a doctorate summa cum laude from Göttingen. Despite her doctorate and Weierstrass' backing, she was unable to attain an academic position anywhere. Her doctoral dissertation, On the Theory of Partial Differential Equations, was to prove a significant work, elaborating on the Cauchy problem, and unfolding what is today known as the Cauchy-Kovalevskaya Theorem.

In 1878, Kovalevskaya had a daughter, but soon devoted herself to mathematics again. In 1881, she separated from her husband. After her husband's suicide in 1883, Kovalevskaya immersed herself even more in mathematics.

At the instigation of Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler, Kovalevskaya was offered a position at Stockholm, Sweden, where she began to teach in 1884. Later that same year, she was granted an "extraordinary professorship". In 1888, she won the prestigious Prix Bordin, awarded by the French Academy of Sciences, for her work On the Problem of the Rotation of a Solid Body about a Fixed Point, building on the works of Euler and Lagrange on the motion of a rotating rigid body. The prize was awarded by a jury unaware (by virtue of the anonymity of all contestants prior to the decision) of Kovalevskaya's identity (and gender), and cited the entry as being of "quite extraordinary service ... to mathematical physics".

The following year (1889), she was made a full professor, the first woman to hold a chair in mathematics anywhere in the world, and only the third female professor in European history. Later that same year, she was admitted as a member of both the Swedish and Russian Academies of Sciences. The rules at the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences were specially changed (on the initiative of Chebyshev) to allow a woman to attain membership.

In early 1891, Kovalevskaya contracted influenza and developed complications, dying of pneumonia.

1) Gritchka points out that Weierstrass hated the idea of female students and gave Kovalevskaya ridiculously hard assignments. When she came back with them correctly solved, he was so impressed that he took her on as his student.

Many, many thanks to Jurph for helping with the Cyrillic version of Kovalevskaya's name.

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