Women In Mathematics #4: Sofia Kovalevskaya
A common theme amongst female mathematicians is breaking down gender barriers — Sofia Kovalevskaya was not only the first major Russian female mathematician, but the first woman appointed to a full professorship in ALL OF NORTHERN EUROPE.
Born in 1850 in Moscow, and living 41 years, Ms. Kovalevskaya’s work was mainly devoted to advanced differential equations and the modeling of mechanics as such. When she was 11, she was prepped for tutoring in calculus, eventually showing an obvious talent in mathematics. However, due to the sexist laws dampening women’s education at the time, she forged a marriage with one Vladimir Kovalevsky to allow emmigration (a future collaborator of Charles Darwin), and moved to Germany in 1867. After 2 years in Heidelberg, she moved to Berlin, taking private lessons from the famous Weierstrass, father of Analysis (if you’ve taken Real Variables/Real Analysis, you know him from any one of the bazillion things named after him, such as the Bolzano-Weierstrass, Weirstrass-Casorati, etc).
By 1974, she made her mark on partial differential equations (PDEs), the dynamics of Saturn’s rings and on elliptic integrals, all as a doctoral thesis, giving her the distinction of being the first woman in all of european history to have a doctorate’s in mathematics.
However, despite her obvious talent and knowledge, she was denied even the right to teach for free. Returning back to Russia in 1879, she failed once again to obtain professorship because of their radical political views, and turned back to head to Germany. However, after giving birth to a daughter, and leaving her in the care of her sister, she traveled to Sweden, getting a position at the University of Stockholm. It was here, she died of the flu, in 1881, after returning from a vacation in Genoa. She is celebrated in Russia for her achievements.
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