Sofya Kovalevsky, 1850 – 1891, Russian

Greatest female mathematician since Hypatia

She was born into a Russian nobility family, was home tutored, and displayed early talent and enthusiasm for mathematics.


Youthful Sofya

Sofya was interested in numbers from an early age and was very interested in reading her father's mathematical notes from university, but he would not permit her to be tutored in mathematics. He thought mathematics was not a suitable topic for girls.
Her uncle tutored her in mathematics and various science subjects until her father intervened and had it stopped.

She had her room decorated with her father's notes, so that she could study them whenever she wanted to, in secret, away from her father.
By her late teens, she was permitted to take a course in mathematics at St Petersburg, but she was not permitted to enroll in a Russian university


St Petersburg University

Because of her gender, she was not permitted to attend the university in Moscow, so she decided to move to Germany. But women were not permitted to travel alone, they were required to be accompanied by a male, husband or father. After a marriage of convenience, she finally arrived in Germany. Unfortunately, the situation across the border was not much better.

University of Heidelberg

The university at Heidelburg would not permit her to enroll because “university was no place for a young woman”, but she was allowed to attend classes in mathematics and physics. She was also offered a position teaching arithmetic at an elementary girls' school!


During this time Sofya wrote 3 important and impressive scientific papers and was granted a PhD by the University of Goettingen. The papers presented were on Saturn Rings, Elliptical integrals, and solutions for partial differential equations.


After the publication of more papers, she was appointed to a professorial position in Stockholm in 1884 and was the first woman in Stockholm and in northern Europe to be granted a professorial position.

Kovalevsky Postage Stamp

Sofya Kovalevsky was very determined and exceptionally talented. Her major contributions were in partial differential equations, elliptical integrals, and planetary motion, and she wrote 10 scientific papers on mathematics and theoretical physics.

Professor Kovalevsky

Sofya Kovalevskaya died young, just 41 years, after having battled gender prejudice most of her life.

Wear it with pride, wear it for justice, and wear it for Sofya Kovalevsky's basic human rights.

Click here for a gifted and tenacious woman. 

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.