Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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Her Remaining Years

At this time Sofia seriously considered the possibility of submitting her fixed point paper to a French university in order to gain another doctorate and possibly a teaching position at a French university. Weierstrass was deeply distressed when he heard of this plan and pointed out to her that it would be deeply insulting to the University of Göttingen if she went through with it, and could even result in the revoking of her degree. He advised her to remain in Sweden and reminded her of her original desire, to show through deeds that women have been alienated from the highest strivings of mankind because of prejudice.78 Despite the fact that she was somewhat bored and frustrated by her life in Sweden, it had become clear to Sofia that she was unlikely to gain the Russian or French professorship which she so craved.

Mittag-Leffler worked tirelessly on Sofia's behalf to ensure that her position in Stockholm would be made permanent. Her victory in the Prix-Bordin was just what he needed to help his case at this time, as there were still those who felt that Sofia was not the best possible person for the job. Nobody of note was willing to allow their qualifications to be directly compared with Sofia's which meant that her position at Stockholm University was not contested. As a result, she became the first woman in modern times to be appointed to a lifetime professorship.

Sofia would produce no more original mathematical papers prior to her untimely death, yet did continue to refine her work on the fixed point problem. Following her death Mittag-Leffler also published the simplified proof to a lemma which Bruns used in the proof of his theorem. It is thought that Sofia came up with this whilst writing her original doctoral dissertation. Her health continued to plague her at this time however, and when she was out climbing whilst on a holiday with Maxim she suffered a heart attack.

Relations between Sofia and Maxim were somewhat strained from the time when Sofia was awarded the Prix-Bordin onwards. He was not used to having to take the backseat when it came to award ceremonies and the like, and may have even resented her success. Sofia had not been keen on marrying Maxim when it would have meant giving up research that she was already deeply involved in, and she also felt that it would only result in him becoming bored and looking for a mistress. She was to change her mind however when she began to feel that she had reached something of a dead end in Stockholm. She began to feel that the time may actually be right to give up mathematics, and while it is unlikely that Maxim was happy about this change of heart, he was an honourable man who was willing to keep to his side of the bargain which they had previously made. A marriage between Sofia and Maxim would most probably not have worked out in the end as not only were they both far too independent, but Sofia would most probably have lost interest in Maxim in the same way as she tended to lose interest in other things once her goals had been achieved. It is also unlikely that she would have really been willing to give up mathematics given that she discussed her ideas for new projects with Mittag-Leffler just prior to her death.

All of the inquiries made by Sofia regarding possible teaching positions in Russian universities were met with rejection. Following another such reaction in 1889, Russian mathematicians were indignant at this slight of Kovalevskaya and decided to honour her.79 Chebyshev in particular, who was a close friend of Sofia's and grateful to her for publicising his work in Western Europe, then began to investigate the possibility of Sofia being elected to the Imperial Academy of Sciences. The academy had made its position clear on this matter in the past however when it was stated diplomatically that,

since access to teaching in our universities is completely closed to women, whatever their capabilities and knowledge, in our homeland there is no position for Mme. Kovalevskaya as honourable and well-paid as that which she occupies in Stockholm.80

Chebyshev would not be put off however, and was instrumental in persuading the powers that be to establish a precedent by electing Sofia to a corresponding membership. On this very subject he wrote to her in November, 1889, that,

Our Academy of Sciences has just now elected you a corresponding member, having just permitted this innovation for which there has been no precedent until now.81

This was really more of an honorary title than anything else, but Sofia hoped that it could lead to full membership at a later date. Her premature death meant the end of such dreams however. It should also be pointed out at this stage that many deserving male Russians were also denied membership to the Academy of Sciences which makes it difficult to say just how much of a factor Sofia's sex was.

Further showing the esteem in which Sofia was held by the French mathematical establishment was the fact that in 1889 she, along with Poincaré and others, was honoured by the French Ministry of Education by being named an officer of public instruction.82 Again this was an honorary title, but the fact that she was so highly honoured in France is even more impressive when the fact that a woman did not gain full membership to the French Academy of Sciences until 1979 is taken into account.

Sofia's mathematical career was to be tragically cut short in February of 1891 when she was seemingly at the very height of both her career and fame. On returning home from Genoa and a holiday with Maxim, she caught a cold which would later develop into pneumonia. While seemingly on the road to recovery Sofia received a visit from Mittag-Leffler and described to him her plans for further work on the Euler equations using Weierstrass's theory of Abelian functions. He could not remember much about this discussion at a later date, but felt sure that, this work would be better than anything else she had done.83 Like Weierstrass, Sofia was becoming a more prolific mathematician as she became older. It therefore would not have been surprising if this had been the case. Her loyal friend and teacher was more distraught than anyone else on hearing of Sofia's untimely passing. In fact he, was so overcome with grief at the news of her death that his friends feared for his own life.84


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Leigh Ellison May 2002