Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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Early Life

As the daughter of General Vasilii and Elizaveta Korvin-Krukovsky, Sofia was to enjoy what amounted to an upbringing somewhat typical of Russian gentry. As a member of a relatively wealthy family, she was always destined to receive a better than average education, but the fact that her, parents were enlightened and that she had unusual ability and vigorous will power permitted her atypical development.4

Many members of Sofia's mother's family were of an intellectual ilk, with her maternal grandfather, F. I. Shubert, being a somewhat famous astronomer of his day. Her great-great-grandfather, Johann Ernst Shubert, had even corresponded with such mathematical greats as Gauss, Laplace and Bessel. She was undoubtedly influenced by the achievements of these relations and it would not seem out of place to suggest that, much of Sofia's capacity for abstract thought and her consequent ability in higher mathematics came as an inheritance from her mother's family.5

As a youngster Sofia was eager to learn and actually taught herself to read when she became frustrated by her inability to do so. She was the favourite of the nanny who took care of the Korvin-Krukovsky children when they were small, and it was in a misguided attempt to make Sofia feel the same way about her, that this woman fostered in her the opinion that she was unloved by her parents. Although Sofia was later to realise that she was in fact her father's favourite, the lack of self-confidence which this early belief caused may have been responsible for the need which Sofia had in later life to feel as though she was the centre of attention as far as those with whom she was intimately involved were concerned. On the other hand it could also be argued that this belief also made her aspire to greatness as a way of being noticed. This nanny was later replaced by a strict governess whose focus was almost entirely Sofia due to the fact that her sister Anuita had removed herself from the nursery and her brother was much younger. The General was increasingly aware of how ignorant his elder daughter was, and resolved that the same fate would not befall Sofia. As a result, a tutor by the name of Joseph Malevich was hired. In her later years Sofia would not give Malevich much credit for her development, partly due to the fact that she resented him for writing about his time with the family, but it cannot be denied that, his approach must have been of inestimable value in her life. 6 His knowledge was limited in the field of mathematics but her time with him undoubtedly assisted in the development of her conversational and debating skills. Under his guidance she was to receive the same level of instruction as any boy could have hoped for.

When discussing her early years Sofia herself was always quick to point out that she regarded her Uncle Peter Korvin-Krukovsky as having been her greatest influence at this time. Once again he did not have a deep knowledge of mathematics, but Sofia wrote that the topics they discussed, acted on [her] imagination, instilling in [her] a reverence for mathematics as an exalted and mysterious science.7 Like Malevich, Peter also had a passion for politics. The great affection and respect which Sofia felt for him meant that she therefore could not help but be influenced by his socialist views. This extended to a sharing of his sympathies for the Polish rebels in their conflict with the tsarist government during the Polish uprising of 1863. Unfortunately for Sofia, her new governess was not fond of her participating in activities which she felt were unnecessary for a young lady of such standing. As a result Sofia had to do much of her reading and learning during this period in private. This governess was replaced when Sofia was twelve years old by a woman who allowed her much more freedom.

Sofia's prospects of getting the education she wished for were seemingly improved when Nicholas Tyrtov (a physics professor and neighbour) left one of his textbooks with her. When she later explained to him how she had come to understand the sine function and develop the other trigonometric formulas in order to make sense of the book, he set about convincing her father that she must be allowed to receive further mathematical training. The General had always had an interest in mathematics and valued the opinion of Tyrtov, but nevertheless he was not to be easily persuaded that the fourteen year old should be allowed to go to St. Petersburg to study. In the end it was only after a period of many months of indecision by the General that she was to be allowed to study with the man who, came to be considered the foremost Russian teacher of mathematics, 8 A. N. Strannoliubsky. They moved through their work at a rapid pace during the winter months when the family would stay in St Petersburg. They covered topics such as analytical geometry as well as differential and integral calculus, and had a great influence on one another. The time they spent together was enough to fully convince him that women were just as capable as men of scientific achievement. As a result he was inspired to assist in the furthering of the movement for women's education. He, in turn, provided Sofia with the foundations of mathematical knowledge on which she was to build her impressive career.


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Leigh Ellison May 2002