Sonja Kovalevsky (born Sofja Krjukovsky) was born on 15 January 1850 in Moscow. In 1889 she was appointed professor at Stockholm University College (today's Stockholm University), thus becoming Sweden's first female professor, and the world's first female professor of mathematics.

 

 

She was appointed professor after applying for the position at Stockholm University, in competition with other applicants. Sofja was the daughter of General Vasilij Vasilievich Krukovsky who early on encouraged her interest in mathematics. Despite her mathematical talents, she was not allowed to study at universities in Russia, as women were not entitled to participate in academic studies.

Got married to be allowed to study

In 1868, Sofja chose to enter into marriage with palaeontologist Vladimir Kovalevsky, with whom she had a daughter named Sonya. Through the marriage, Sofja had a male guardian, and was thus allowed to study in Germany. When women were not allowed to attend public lectures in Germany, Sofja was given private lessons by the German mathematician Karl Weierstrass. In 1874, she received her doctorate at the University of Göttingen.

Swedens first female professor

After the move to Sweden in 1881, when she changed her name to Sonya, Professor Gösta Mittag-Leffler arranged so that she was offered a teaching position at Stockholm University. In 1884 she was promoted to associate professor and in 1889 she was appointed full professor here. In doing so, she became Sweden's first female professor and the first female professor of mathematics in the world.

In the late 19th century Sweden, women were not welcomed as students at public universities and neither were they allowed to hold government positions as professors. Because Stockholm University College was a private foundation, it was possible to appoint women as professors, which enabled Sonya Kovalevsky to apply for a position as professor, which she then received. At the Swedish state educational institutions, it took until 1938 before a woman was appointed professor – Nanna Svartz at Karolinska Institutet.

Award from the French Academy of science

In 1885, Sonya Kovalevsky was proposed as a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, but she was not elected because of her gender. In the same year, she became a member of the women's cultural association Nya Idun and in 1887 she was elected to the Society of 17, founded by Gösta Mittag-Leffler. In 1888, Sonya Kovalevsky was awarded the prestigious Prix Bordin by the French Academy of Sciences.

Wrote fiction and dramas

Sonja Kovalevsky was also a fiction writer and had contact with several of well-known writers of the time such as Dostoevsky, Ibsen and Strindberg. Among other works, she wrote the drama Fight for Happiness together with Anne-Charlotte Leffler, sister of Gösta Mittag-Leffler.

She also wrote about her childhood and, after she passed away, left several literary works, among them the novel “Vera Vorontzoff”, published posthumously by Ellen Key. In the film “The Mountain on the Back of the Moon”, the friendship between Sonja Kovalevsky and Anne-Charlotte Leffler is depicted.

Author Alice Munro has also been fascinated by the fate of Sonja Kovalevsky. In the final novel in the collection “Too Much Happiness”, she portrays Kovalevsky's life, and quotes Sonja Kovalevsky, as saying: “Many who have not studied mathematics confuse this science with arithmetic and consider it dry and soulless. However, it is a science that requires great imagination.” Sonja Kovalevsky has also said: "It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in the soul".

In 1891, Sonja Kovalevsky died of pneumonia at the age of 41. She is buried at the Northern Cemetery in Solna, Stockholm.