Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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1883 to 1891


Soon after her recovery Sofia was contacted by Mittag-Leffler who was now the rector of Stockholm University, with the news that the way was now open for her to come and teach there, with the one catch being that she could not become a member of the faculty. Stockholm was a university that had been set up out of necessity and with private money. The aim was free education without discrimination and the freedom to attend the lectures you wanted rather than study a narrow core syllabus. Sofia arrived apprehensively in Sweden in 1883, worried at her lack of preparation to become a lecturer. These apprehensions were proven to be completely unfounded when her lectures were a huge success and by the end of her first year she had been appointed as a full professor, published her work on the refraction of light, and had even become fluent enough to lecture in Swedish. The post was fantastic for her, giving her the chance to work on mathematical problems and use her gift of teaching and in 1885 she was appointed Chair of Mechanics.

While in Stockholm she developed a close friendship with Mittag-Leffler's sister Anne-Charlotte. Anne-Charlotte encouraged Sofia to follow a literary path and in 1887 they worked together on the play "A Struggle for Happiness", and Sofia became completely absorbed in it, much to the annoyance of Mittag-Leffler who wanted Sofia to concentrate on her mathematics. However, in the autumn of 1887 Sofia's sister Aniuta died quite suddenly, leaving Sofia feeling desperately lonely stuck in a world where she could not express her true feelings as she did with her sister. In December of the same year the play was published and received very negative reviews. So when the French Academy of Science announced their new competition for the Prix Bordin in early 1888 it gave Sofia something new to immerse herself in, with the encouragement of Mittag-Leffler. The papers were to be on the problems of the rotation of a solid body around a fixed point under the influence of a gravitational force. This was a topic on which Sofia had done a lot of work on and it is thought that the problem may have been set with Sofia in mind.

It was as Sofia was making a start on her paper that Maxim Maximovich Kovavlesky appeared in her life. He was a distant relative of Vladimir and had arrived in Stockholm to deliver a series of lectures on sociology. He impressed Sofia tremendously and she wrote of him:

He's a real Russian from head to foot. And it's true that he has more intelligence and originality in his little finger than you could extract from both Messrs. X together, even if you put them under a hydraulic press.

Unfortunately his arrival came at the wrong time for Sofia's work and Mittag-Leffler encouraged him to retreat to Uppasala so that Sofia could complete her work. Nevertheless he proposed to Sofia, but with the condition that she would have to give up her work. Sofia felt that she had to finish her paper and turned him down, but she remained torn up by her feelings towards him and her panic to complete her work on time. She managed to successfully complete her paper and it was one of fifteen entries, all submitted anonymously. When the entries were read one was judged to be such an outstanding contribution towards the problem that the prize money was increased from 3000 to 5000 francs. When the contributions were matched to the contributors the outstanding paper was that of Sofia's and she was propelled even higher in the mathematical world. She attended the award ceremony with Maxim, but after the ceremony he left for Beaulieu by himself. Her contract at the University of Stockholm was due to expire in 1889, so Sofia sought to find a post in closer proximity to Maxim. She tried for posts in France and had high hopes of a position in Russia after being elected as a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. These hopes became truly dashed when she received a letter form the Academy explaining that there were no places for women "no matter how great their ability and learning" that "would be as distinguished and remunerative as the one she [Sofia] now occupies in Stockholm".

The response from France was similar and so with regret at their separation, Sofia accepted a lifetime appointment in Stockholm. In the time after her appointment at Stockholm she took began to spend a lot of time writing, working feverously on what had previously been more of a hobby. She wrote some radical political works including "A Nihilist Girl" and accounts of her own life. Some works were never published in Russia or had chapters removed due to their political content.

Sofia was never to receive the Russian academic post that she deserved. Over the Christmas of 1890 she met with Maxim at his Riviera Villa and arranged to meet on New Year's Day with Anne-Charlotte whom had never been introduced to Maxim. However due to a misaddressed telegram the meeting never took place, leaving Sofia and Maxim to spend the day together in Genoa, getting increasingly aggravated with each other. Sofia left for Stockholm and the resumption of lectures, stopping off in Denmark on the way. Arriving late at night, with no Danish money she could not pay a porter to take her luggage to her room, so in the rain she carried it all herself. On arriving in Sweden she took her classes even though she was quite ill. It was only when she was completely exhausted and fit to collapse that she sent for a doctor who misdiagnosed her as having kidney colic. By the time she was properly diagnosed with having pneumonia it was too late and the disease claimed her life within six days. She was taken from the world while at the peak of her academic powers and social standing, but her life would go on to influence many others all around the globe.


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Tom Burslem May 2002