Remarkable Women In Engineering

Sonia Kovalevsky

Sonia Kovalevsky is an extraordinary mathematician whose ground-breaking work paved the road for challenging societal norms of women’s inferiority to men in the sciences.  In the 19th century, a time when strict governess set the expectations for women to be primarily responsible for housework and childcare, Sonia became the first woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics, the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe, and one of the first women to work for a scientific journal as an editor.  In addition, Sonia was also an accomplished writer and a political advocate of women’s rights. 

Sonia was born in Moscow on January 15, 1850.  Her exposure to mathematics began at a very young age as she studied her father’s old calculus notes that were papered on her nursery wall in replacement for a shortage of wallpaper.  At fourteen, Sonia taught herself trigonometry in order to understand the optics section of a physics book.  The author of this book, who was also her neighbor at the time, was extremely impressed by her genius and encouraged Sonia’s father to allow her to go off to school in St. Petersburg to continue her studies.  However, due to unmarried women not being permitted to travel alone, Sonia entered into a marriage of convenience in order to leave Russia and continue her studies.

In 1870, the couple moved to Berlin where Sonia wanted to study under Karl Weirstrass at the University of Berlin.  Weisrstrass, considered one of the most renowned mathematicians of his time, privately tutored Sonia since she was refused admission to the University on account of her gender.  During this time Sonia produced three papers--on partial differential equations, on Saturn’s rings, and on elliptic integrals-- to the University of Göttingen as her doctoral dissertation. Her paper on partial differential equations was praised by the European mathematical community and contains what is now commonly known as the Cauchy-Kovalevskaya theorem.  The theorem gives conditions for the existence of solutions to a certain class of partial differential equations. She was awarded the degree and became the first woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics in 1874.  

Despite the prestigious doctoral degree and the significant contributions to the field of mathematics, Sonia was not able to immediately secure a professorship position due to her gender.  It was not until 1883 that she accepted an invitation from Magnus Mittag-Leffler to become a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Stockholm.  She was promoted to full professor in 1889 and with that became the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe.  

Sonia Kovalevskaya died on February 10, 1891 due to flu complications.  Today, she is immortalized by her incredible contributions to the field of mathematics, her courage and determination to rise above the challenges, and for inspiring generations of women to study mathematics.

Further Reading at USC

Sonia Kovalevsky, A Russian childhood
Bettye Anne Case, Complexities: Women in mathematics 
Michele Emmer, Imagine math: Between cultures and mathematics


Reynolds, A.  (2012, April 3).  Sonya Kovalevsky.  Wichita State University Departmetn of Mathematics and Statistics.

O'connor, J.  (1996, December).  Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya.  School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews.

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