Growing up the daughter of a retired Lieutenant General of the Imperial Russian Army Sofia Kovalevskaya wasn’t encouraged as a scholar by her father, but she became the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in mathematics nonetheless.
She recalls in her autobiography that her father wasn’t approving of “learned women” so her education was spotty at best-learning from tutors and her uncles when they visited or teaching herself from books around the house. For secondary school she was sent to St. Petersburg but ran into another gender based road block when the only universities that accepted women were in Switzerland and without her father’s permission, she couldn’t attend.
Kovalevskaya found a loop-hole in that a woman could travel outside of Russia with her husband, so she arranged a secret marriage of convenience to a young politically radical man that was fighting for the rights of women. The two then traveled to Germany where she would study under one of the most renowned mathematicians at the time–as she wasn’t permitted to actually attend classes. In a few years’ time she had written four papers, had one published in a well-known journal, and in 1874 she was granted a doctorate from the University of Gottingen.
After some personal and professional struggles she was invited to lecture temporarily at the University of Stockholm but after a five year period the school knew her worth and hired her as a tenured professor and the Chair of Mechanics.
She published more work and in 1888 she entered a paper into a competition held by the French Academy of Science and won. Her paper detailed her theory, the Kowalevski top, for the motion of an unsymmetrical rigid body where its center of mass is not on an axis in the body–which the academy found so impressive it increased the prize money she received.
During her life she published ten papers in mathematics and mathematical physics that where not only ground breaking themselves but would lay the foundations for the works of many others yet to come.
Written by Angela Goad