Sofja Wassiljewna Kovalevskaya

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Sofja Kovalevskaya around 1880

Sofia Kovalevskaya ( Russian Софья Васильевна Ковалевская ., Scientific transliteration Sof'ja Vasil'evna Kovalevskaja ; born January 3 jul. / 15. January  1850 greg. In Moscow , † January 29 jul. / 10. February  1891 greg. In Stockholm ) was a Russian mathematician . In 1884 she was at Stockholm Universitythe world's first female professor of mathematics to give lectures herself. Kovalevskaya not only achieved significant achievements in mathematics, but also had great success with her childhood memories, which first appeared in 1889 . She was also politically active and advocated the right of all women to education.

She is known for her work on mechanics ( gyro theory ) and on partial differential equations ( Cauchy-Kowalewskaja theorem ).

Name variants

To Sofya Kovalevskaya there are many different names versions: In English works, she is usually Sofia Kovalevskaia or Kovalevskaya . Because it was unknown in the Western European countries that there was also a female form of the surname in the Slavic countries, in Western Europe it is still often carried under the name of her husband Kowalewski (also Kowalewsky or Kovalewsky ); Her first name was mostly Sonja in Germany and Sophie in France . She published her dissertation , written in German, under the name Sophie von Kowalevsky née von Corvin-Krukovskoy .


Kowalewskaja was born as the second daughter of Elisabeth Fjodorowna Schubert (1820–1879) and General Wassili Wassiljewitsch Krukowski (1800–1874, also Corwin-Krukowski). Her mother was an educated woman who had married the artillery officer of the Imperial Russian Army and landowner twenty years her senior in order to escape her parents' home. She was the daughter of the German-born officer in the Russian service, military cartographer and geodesist Friedrich Schubert (* 1789 in Saint Petersburg; † 1865), who in turn was the son of Friedrich Theodor von Schubert .

Friedr. by Schubert
Luise von Cronhelm
Friedr. Schubert
Sophie Rall
Wassili Corwin-Krukowski
Elisabeth Schubert
Alexandrine Schubert
Fyodor Krukowski
Victor Jaclard
Anna Krukowski
Vladimir Kovalevsky
Sofja Kovalevskaya
Sofja (Fufa) Kowalewski
Family of Sofja Kowalewskaja and her daughter Sofja Kowalewski

Like the time in Russia usual in her shift, Sofya was right after birth in the care of a nanny given the care of her education. Her parents only saw her at mealtimes, and because of the age difference (her sister Anna Corwin-Krukowski (1844–1887) was six years older, her brother Fyodor five years younger) she did not have much contact with her siblings in childhood. Anna later became her closest confidante - she owes her contact with an intellectual youth movement, the so-called nihilists , who also fought for the liberation of women and ultimately helped Sofja fulfill her dream of studying abroad.

When Sofja was around eight years old, her father said goodbye to the army and moved the family to the Palibino estate (now in Pskov Oblast ). Here she got a new governess : Miss Smith from England, a resolute woman who from then on was responsible for Sofja's upbringing and training.

The way to math

Sofja's interest in mathematics arose, among other things, from mathematical documents in her home environment. When the Palibino estate was renovated, the wallpaper for the children's room was no longer sufficient. Therefore, the walls of this room were pasted with paper that had been found in the attic of the house. So the walls of Sofja's room were papered with the script of a lecture by Mikhail Ostrogradski on differential and integral calculus , which her father had heard in his youth. She dealt intensively with these scripts.

Her interest in mathematics was particularly encouraged by one of her paternal uncles, who enjoyed reading and talking about it. As a non-mathematician, he had acquired specialist knowledge by himself. Sofja listened to his mathematical explanations and developed an interest in them. So she heard for the first time about the “ squaring of the circle ” and about asymptotes , “to which a curve constantly approaches, only to touch it at infinity”.

The elementary mathematics lessons she received from her Polish tutor seemed boring at first. When her interest in algebra and geometry finally grew, her father forbade her to take math classes. She continued to secretly pursue her interests.

When she was fifteen she was reading a physics book written by a neighbor, Professor Tyrtow. They interpreted and recorded the trigonometric formulas in the chapter on optics independently. After explaining the interpretation of the sine to the author, the latter advocated that Sofja should get lessons in higher mathematics .

So Sofja was finally able to prevail against her father and received lessons from Professor Strannolubski in Saint Petersburg . There she also met Dostoevsky , for whom she felt an enthusiastic affection, as she wrote in her memoir. But Dostoevsky felt drawn to her sister Anna. Anna had published her first story in Dostoyevsky's magazine and was visiting him in Saint Petersburg.

At that time, women in Russia were not allowed to study or attend lectures as guest auditors. Many therefore planned to study in what is considered to be the progressive West. Socially and politically, Russia was relatively backward by European standards. As a result, many young women had exaggerated ideas about equality for women in the West. Many Russian women, who left their homeland because of this, then saw themselves pushed into the role of pioneers in the West.


A trip to Western Europe was not easy because Russian women did not have their own passports at the time. They could only travel abroad if they were accompanied by their father or husband on whose passport they were entered. Since Sofja Kowalewskaja wanted to study mathematics and natural sciences, she prevailed against her father's will and entered into a marriage of convenience in September 1868 with the student Vladimir Onufrijewitsch Kowalewski (1842-1883), a supporter of the nihilists. In April 1869 both traveled to Vienna , where Kowalewski wanted to study geology. He later became a well-known paleontologist .

The marriage was intended purely as a marriage of convenience, but in the course of her life there were always times when Kovalevskaya lived and lived with her husband; these alternated with times when the couple lived apart or were even thinking of divorce.

At the University of Vienna, Kovalevskaya received permission from Professor Lange (probably Viktor von Lang ) to attend his lectures. However, Vienna was too expensive for her, and she thought the math there was bad. So she decided to go to Heidelberg . Here she found out that women were not allowed to enroll. Only after personal conversations with individual professors of mathematics and physics was she finally able to begin her studies at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg in the summer semester of 1869 - if only as a guest student. She heard mathematics from Paul du Bois-Reymond and Leo Koenigsberger , physics from Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Kirchhoff, and chemistry from Robert Wilhelm Bunsen . During her student years in Heidelberg, Kowalewskaja lived with her sister Anna and her husband on Untere Strasse in Heidelberg's old town.

In the winter semester of 1870, Sofja Kowalewskaja moved to Berlin to join Karl Weierstrass , one of the most important mathematicians of the time, on the advice of Professor Koenigsberger .

Doctorate and employment

Despite good letters of recommendation from her Heidelberg professors, Weierstrass first tested her by setting her a difficult task. A week later she showed him her solution, which he was so impressed with that from now on he stood up for Kovalevskaya. But even he could do nothing against the conservative administration. So he ended up offering her private lessons.

She studied in Berlin for four years. Her teacher visited her once a week in her small apartment and on Sunday she visited him. This created a close relationship between the two that went well beyond a normal teacher-student relationship.

In between, Sofja Kowalewskaja was in Paris with her husband from April to May 1871, because she was worried about her sister Anna, who was active on the side of the insurgents in the Paris Commune with her husband Victor Jaclard, an officer of the National Guard . After the defeat of the Commune, they hurried back to Paris. Her sister was able to escape from Paris, but her husband was imprisoned there. He was finally able to escape or (according to other reports) on the intervention of her father General Corwin-Krukowski, whom the sisters hired for it, was freed from Adolphe Thiers . During his time in Paris, Kovalevskaya also looked after the wounded in the hospital, but did not take an active part in the uprising.

After Kowalewskaja had informed her teacher Weierstrass of the unconventional character of their marriage, he supported her with her dissertation, on which she worked from November 1872 - mostly in her small apartment, sometimes up to sixteen hours a day. She rarely left the house and seemed no longer interested in anything but mathematics. By the summer of 1874 she completed three papers that she could submit as a doctoral thesis.

Finding a university where Kovalevskaya could do his doctorate turned out to be more complicated than producing the work. Finally, Weierstrass decided on the University of Göttingen . Although he did not support women's studies himself, he stood up for Kovalevskaya and ultimately managed to get her to do her doctorate in absentia (without oral exams).

Ernst Schering , who examined her work ( theory of partial differential equations , shape of Saturn's rings and classes of Abelian integrals ), found that all three had been created with a lot of specialist knowledge and diligence and that one of them would be enough for a doctorate. In August 1874 she received her title summa cum laude . She was the second woman to be awarded an academic degree by the University of Göttingen.

After receiving her doctorate, Kovalevskaya went home. She wanted to teach in Russia, but would have had to take a Russian master's degree. Since she was not admitted to university as a woman, she was unable to take an exam. The only way to teach would have been in the lower grades of girls' schools.

It was not only for this reason that she turned away from mathematics. She tried to live a conventional life and lived with her husband again. In order to become financially independent, she and her husband got involved in risky property speculations that brought the family to the verge of ruin. On October 17, 1878, she gave birth to a daughter who was also baptized with the name Sofja, but was generally called Fufa.

In 1880, Kovalevskaya decided to turn to mathematics again. Still unable to find a job in Russia, she returned to research. She translated her third dissertation, which she had not yet published, into Russian and presented it to the 6th Congress of Naturalists and Doctors in early 1880. Although the results were six years old, they weren't out of date.

Professorship in Stockholm

In order to escape from her creditors, she moved to Moscow with her husband and daughter that same year , where she regularly attended the events of the Moscow Mathematical Society . She was so spellbound by mathematics again that she decided to travel to Berlin for two months to catch up with current research. Because she could no longer help him, she left her husband in March 1881, who had meanwhile entered the oil business and had completely ruined himself financially.

With her daughter she made her way to Berlin, where she threw herself back to work. At the end of the year she moved to Paris . Her daughter was brought back to Russia with her nanny and then grew up with Julija Lermontowa , a good friend of Kowalewskaja, who had accompanied her during her studies in Heidelberg and Berlin.

In May 1882 the Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler , a pupil of Weierstrass, visited Kowalewskaja in Paris and introduced her to the most important French mathematicians. In July of the same year she was elected to the Paris Mathematical Society . A year later she presented another paper at the 7th Congress of Naturalists and Doctors. After her husband committed suicide in April 1883 - which had hit Kovalevskaya very much - she now had the respectable status of a widow. Gösta Mittag-Leffler, who had been trying unsuccessfully for a job for her for months (for a woman living separately from her husband that was quite impossible at the time), was now able to offer her a position as a private lecturer at Stockholm University . Her arrival in Stockholm in late 1883 was mentioned in all Swedish newspapers. It was so unusual that a woman received a lectureship and went to a completely foreign country for it.

In an article by August Strindberg published in 1884 it was stated that “a woman as a mathematics professor is a harmful and unpleasant appearance, indeed that one could even call her a monster. The invitation of this woman to Sweden, which in and of itself has enough male professors, who by far exceed her in knowledge, can only be explained by the politeness of Swedes towards women. "

But Kovalevskaya was not discouraged by such attacks. In the first semester she gave her lectures in German, in the next semester in Swedish.

"As a Christmas present I received an article by Strindberg from your sister in which he proves as clearly as two two is four, that such an enormity as a woman professor of mathematics is harmful, useless and unpleasant. I think he is basically quite right, there is only one thing I protest against, namely that there are supposed to be a large number of mathematicians living in Sweden who are far superior to me and that I was only called out of gallantry. "

- from a letter from Kovalevskaya to Mittag-Leffler

Mittag-Leffler, editor of the only mathematical journal for Scandinavia , commissioned her to procure mathematical articles from Russian, but also German and French mathematicians. In 1884 she became co-editor of Acta Mathematica and thus the first woman to serve on the editorial staff of a scientific newspaper. In the summer of the same year, through the work of Mittag-Leffler - against the resistance of many professors in non-natural science subjects - she was given a full professorship in Stockholm, initially limited to five years. Although she did not receive a large salary, she was the first female professor in Europe since Laura Bassi (1711–1778) and Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718–1799).

At the end of 1887, Kovalevskaya met Alfred Nobel . Although he courted her, there was no affair. To this day the rumor persists that there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics because Sofja Kowalewskaja had a liaison with Nobel and left him because of Gösta Mittag-Leffler. There is no real basis for this rumor, because Sofja Kovalevskaya had no relationship with Mittag-Leffler either. It is more likely that for Nobel - who wanted to honor work that was “useful for humanity” - this benefit was not immediately recognizable in mathematics.

Further career and death

In 1886 Kovalevskaya succeeded in solving a special case of the problem of the rotation of solid bodies around a fixed point. The next Bordin Prize ( Prix ​​Bordin ) of the Académie des sciences (for the year 1888) - one of its most prestigious prizes - was announced for a contribution to the theory of the motion of a rigid body around a fixed point , see Kowalewskaja-Kreisel . For Kovalevskaya, this meant the opportunity to win this prize, which is endowed with 3,000 francs. The fact that the competition was specifically tailored to Kowalewskaja's work shows how much she was supported by her mathematician colleagues around the world. The people who put obstacles in her way in her life and who doubted her abilities were usually professors outside the field or completely outsiders.

In May 1887 Anna, Kovalevskaya’s sister, died after a long illness. Kovalevskaya was with her as much as possible during this time. After her death, Kovalevskaya wrote:

“Everything in life seems so faded and uninteresting to me. Mathematics is better at such moments; one is happy that a world exists so completely outside of ourselves. "

Following this statement, she immersed herself in the final draft of her work for the Bordin Prize.

The works for this award had to be submitted anonymously; the names of the senders were only announced after the decision on the award of the prize. Kovalevskaya's work was selected and considered so good that the prize money was increased to 5,000 francs.

After receiving the Bordin Prize in late 1888, Kovalevskaya began to write down her childhood memories. The book was published in Sweden at Christmas 1889 and was an instant hit.

When her professorship expired in 1889, she tried to get a job in France and Russia. In Stockholm, Mittag-Leffler stood up for her again and achieved that in June 1889 she was given a professorship for life. In France she was appointed Officier de l'Instruction publique , which, however, did not bring her any advantages other than an impressive certificate. She was not offered a position in Russia either, instead she was elected a “corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences ”.

Kovalevskaya did not have much of her position for life, as she died on February 10, 1891 of an influenza complicated by pneumonia , which she contracted in Cannes , and which she met on the return journey via Paris and Berlin, where she confessed Mathematicians had worsened. She was only 41 years old. The news of her untimely death shook her mathematician colleagues across Europe.

The mathematician Leo Koenigsberger writes in Mein Leben , pp. 116–117:

“I saw Frau v. Kowalevsky only once again after more than 20 years, when, after my recall from Vienna to Heidelberg, she visited me on the return trip from Petersburg to Stockholm, on which she caught the severe cold which she did not long afterwards, 41 years old , he laid. When I returned from a walk, I found a lady with my wife in the drawing room who approached me with the words, 'How happy I am to see you again, Professor.' When I greeted her a little embarrassed, she saw that I no longer recognized her - in fact, her youthful grace was completely gone; she let me guess, but when I was seduced by the Russian accent in the language, always searching in vain among my wife's relatives in my memory, she finally revealed herself to me. I asked her to come into my study with me, and of course a scientific conversation soon developed, but she was leading it with a certain weariness - an eventful life, clouded by many blows of fate, had just passed her by. When, prompted by individual remarks on her part, I expressed my opinion to her with the utmost conviction that she could look back on her life with pride and satisfaction - she had just come from Petersburg, where the Academy had celebrated her - she gave it to me The answer, which gave me a lot to think about and which later influenced my actions in some resolutions, was gloomy: 'A woman is only happy when men are at her feet; maybe I would have been happier if I had remained a novelist! '"

Leopold Kronecker dedicated the following obituary to her:

“I am fulfilling the sad duty of informing the readers of this journal of the passing of Mrs. Sophie von Kowalevsky, née Corvin-Krukowskoy. She was born in Moscow on January 15, 1851, married in 1868, received in Göttingen in 1874, after spending one year (1869/70) in Heidelberg and then four years with short breaks here in Berlin, primarily under Mr. Weierstrass' direction , had been in charge of mathematical studies, was awarded a doctorate on the basis of a dissertation printed in the 80th volume of this journal and a professorship at Stockholm University in 1884. Ms. von Kowalevsky spent the last holiday season in December of the previous year and January of this year with relatives near Nice, then stayed a few days in Paris and Berlin on her return and left for Stockholm on Monday, February 2nd . Soon after her arrival there she fell ill with pleuropneumonitis and succumbed to it on Tuesday, February 10th at 4 a.m. Already at the age of forty she was wrested far too early from the science, which she cultivated with excellent success, and from the large circle of friends that she loved and adored. Sophie von Kowalevsky (after her last visiting card, 'Sonja Kovalevsky'), combined with an extraordinary talent for general mathematical speculation as well as for the technique necessary for the execution of special investigations, conscientious, tireless diligence, always kept her sense for other intellectuals in the most intensive professional activity Open to interests, while always preserving her femininity and therefore acquired and maintained the sympathy of those who were outside her scientific circle in traffic. The history of mathematics will have to report from her as one of the strangest phenomena among the extremely rare female researchers. Her memory will endure throughout the mathematical world through the not numerous but valuable works which she has published; the memory of her important and at the same time graceful personality will live on in the hearts of all those who were fortunate enough to know her. "


Sofja Kovalevskaya on Soviet postage stamp from 1951

Since 1992, the Russian Academy of Sciences has awarded the Kovalevskaya Prize for outstanding achievements in the field of mathematics. The first prize winner was Olga Ladyschenskaya .

The Soviet Post honored Sofja Kovalevskaya by issuing a special stamp in 1951. The face value of the stamp was 40 kopecks . In 1996, the Russian Post issued another Kovalevskaya stamp. The face value was 1500 rubles .

The following institutions or things also bear her name:



Outside of the specialist field, too, Sofja Kowalewskaja's achievements and curriculum vitae left an impression or are still impressive today. Her “dual talent as a writer and mathematician” aroused the interest of the writer Alice Munro ( Nobel Prize for Literature 2013) and inspired her to write the (somewhat longer) short story Too Much Happiness in the 2009 volume Too Much Happiness .


The Deutsches Theater Göttingen brought the life of Sofja Kowalewskaja to the stage for the first time on December 22nd, 2016 under the direction of Antje Thoms . The author Anne Jelena Schulte had processed the mathematician's contradictions, longings and struggles for the stage and reflected them with contemporary texts on the everyday life of women in the natural science faculties. She researched this at the University of Göttingen , where Sofja Kowalewskaja had received her doctorate in absentia .




To biography and work reviews



Web links

Commons : Sofja Kovalevskaya  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Sofja Wassiljewna Kowalewskaja  - Sources and full texts



Individual evidence

  1. ^ Rainer W. Gärtner:  Schubert, Friedrich Theodor. In: New German Biography (NDB). Volume 23, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-428-11204-3 , pp. 605 f. ( Digitized version ).
  2. Date of birth according to Pelageya Kochina , Love and Mathematics , p. 15.
  3. Sonja Kowalewsky, Memories of My Childhood , Kiepenheuer, Weimar, 1960, p. 81.
  4. ^ Letter from SV Kovalevskaja to Ju.V. Lermontova, Heidelberg 1869. In: Historia Mathematica Heidelbergensis.
  5. ^ University of Heidelberg (ed.): Sofja Kovalevskaja - the world's first female mathematics professor. The Russian was the first student at Heidelberg University. In: HAIlife , Heidelberg Alumni International , Magazin 2012, pp. 32–33, with 2 historical photos .
  6. Pelageya Kochina, Love and Mathematics , MIR, Moscow, p. 70.
  7. Pelageya Kochina, loc. cit., p. 244.
  8. A woman as a doctor of philosophy. In:  Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt , September 22, 1874, p. 5 (online at ANNO ).Template: ANNO / Maintenance / nwb
  9. ^ Wilhelm Ahrens : Joke and Seriousness in Mathematics . Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim / Zurich / New York 2002, ISBN 978-3-487-41922-0 , p. 76 ( limited preview in Google Book Search [accessed February 10, 2021]).
  10. An award-winning woman. In:  Deutsches Volksblatt / Deutsches Volksblatt. Radical middle class organ / telegraph. Radical Mittelstandsorgan / Deutsches Volksblatt. Daily newspaper for Christian German politics , January 3, 1889, p. 5 (online at ANNO ).Template: ANNO / Maintenance / dvb
  11. ^ Sophie von Kowalevsky . In: Journal for pure and applied mathematics . tape 1891 , no. 108 , January 1891, p. 88 ( [accessed February 10, 2016]).
  12. S. W. Kovalevskaya Prize. In: Russian Academy of Sciences . Retrieved August 6, 2018 ( Russian Премия имени С.В. Ковалевской ).
  13. Sofja Wassiljewna Kowalewskaja in the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature of the IAU (WGPSN) / USGS
  14. Alice Munro , Too much luck , Fischer, 2013, ISBN 978-3-596-51300-0 , p. 495, (“Thanks”).
  15. ↑ Play by Anne Jelena Schulte: Sofja - Revolution of a Stare Body. In: Deutsches Theater in Göttingen , accessed on December 11, 2020.
  16. Berget på Månens Baksida in the Internet Movie Database (= A mountain on the back of the moon. )
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on August 28, 2005 .