Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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1871 to 1883


As Berlin was effectively closed to her Sofia approached Göttingen University instead and they allowed her to try for a doctorate. However instead of requiring one dissertation, as was usual for men, they required three. Sofia duly obliged and produced three dissertations for them of a standard so high that she was not required to defend them or to sit an exam, as was the usual procedure. In fact her first thesis was to be published in Crelle's Journal fur die reine und angewante Mathematik that same year. The journal was perhaps the most serious mathematical publication in Germany at the time, and for a novice to have an article published was no mean feat.

In 1874 Sofia and her husband returned to Russia to search for academic posts, despite their excellent degrees and strong references neither of them were successful. Disheartened by their rejection from the academic world they turned their back on it and followed a quite different path. Vladimir embarked on a financial enterprise, while Sofia turned to writing. She found a job on a newspaper and wrote on a wide range of subjects, from theatre performances to the workings of mechanical objects. She also helped to set up higher education courses for women, with the intention that they would form the basis for a women's university. However despite having helped to set these up, when she offered to teach the courses unsalaried, her offer was rejected.

It was during this time in Russia that the couple decided to consummate their marriage. The reasons are unclear as to why they chose to validate a relationship that was based on convenience and many reports suggest that Vladimir had hoped the marriage would develop into a loving one. It is clear that they were going through many problems and would persistently row and argue when in each other's company. Perhaps they thought a child would make things better, or perhaps they felt guilty at deceiving their parents and thought they ought to try to make the marriage work. Whatever the reasons were, the result was the birth their first daughter Sofya Vladimirovna in October of 1878. For two years, all of Sofia's efforts were put into raising the infant and this was frustrating to a woman with a desire to dedicate herself completely to mathematics.

The turning point would come in the January of 1880 with the Sixth Congress of Natural Scientists in Petersburg. P I Cheyshev, was a friend of the Kovavlevskys and invited Sofia to give a paper at the congress. Six years had elapsed since Sofia had done any serious mathematical work and it was with reluctance that she finally agreed. The paper she decided to present was a dissertation on Abelian integrals that was amongst the three she had presented for her doctorate in 1874. She took a night to translate the paper into Russian and presented it the following morning. The response was fantastic, although six years old the paper was still fresh and introduced a new way of approaching the problems. Among those at the listening to her presentation was Gösta Mittag-Leffler a fellow student of Weierstrass. He talked positively to her about the chances of finding her a place in the faculty of mathematics at Helsingfors in Helsinki. Suddenly Sofia had been reinstated as a serious figure in the academic world.

The change in Sofia's fortunes came at an awful time for Vladimir, whose financial enterprises had collapsed. He had ploughed all of Sofia's inheritance into failed plans and had now reached rock bottom. People around him were insensitive and unsympathetic, not realising the full extent of his depression and that it was a symptom of the medical illness from which he was suffering. He searched for a university post in an attempt to try and restore his academic career, but was initially unsuccessful. When he was offered a job with a petroleum firm, his dreams of financial success got the better of him and he accepted the position. Shortly after this he was offered a palaeontology post at the University of Moscow. Foolishly he took on the academic post whilst also holding his position with the oil company.

While her husband set about juggling two careers Sofia visited Weierstrass in Berlin to discuss how to make up for lost time. She immersed herself in work, inspired by the thought of Mittag-Leffler's promising words. However, she was to discover that her chance of teaching at Helsingfors had fallen through and she was in the same position as before. Still she continued with her efforts in mathematics, working in Berlin and Paris on research into the refraction of light in crystals. Unfortunately, there was to be another disturbing event in her life. Frustrated at his inability to create any original work and with a scandal emerging at the oil firm where he worked, Vladimir took his own life by inhaling a bottle of chloroform. On hearing the news Sofia blamed herself and locked herself inside for days in attempt to starve herself to death. Luckily she was unsuccessful and on recovering was to immerse herself in her work.


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Tom Burslem May 2002