Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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Time off

Weierstass was impressed by her work. Unlike many of his students, she was not depressed by his intellectual superiority. In fact there were times when, she challenged and even exceeded his own insight.34 As a result, Weierstrass felt compelled to ensure that Sofia was granted her doctorate without having to undergo an oral defence. Had it not been for his intervention she could have been made subject to a real grilling by people who did not want to see a woman attain such heights in the world of mathematics. Weierstrass wrote to his former pupil Fuchs at the University of Göttingen to make sure that this would not be allowed to happen to the woman he called, not only my best but my dearest friend.35 Due to his efforts, in 1874 Sofia was granted her degree in absentia, summa cum laude. She was the first woman to be granted a doctorate in mathematics, yet she now found it impossible to get a job at a level in accordance with her ability.

Instead she found herself back at home in Russia and feeling a real sense of anti-climax. She had finally achieved her goal, but was mentally exhausted from the years of hard work which had been necessary. She found herself invited to a large number of social engagements, and as her friend Julia Lermontova put it, learning was done ... life had begun.36 This was to be the beginning of a long period of mathematical inactivity from Sofia, which saw her life undergo many changes.

Throughout her life Sofia had never been a particularly good correspondent, so in that sense it is not surprising that very soon after she had returned to Russia, she ceased to write to Weierstrass. She was too busy embarking on a whirlwind of social gatherings instead. She had wearied of mathematics and found this aspect of her life suffering the, constant battle between the German industry of her mother's family and the Russian sloth of her father's.37 Whilst the fact that she was mentally exhausted is not in doubt, it is certainly true that she became somewhat intoxicated by her new life. She and Vladimir were moving in affluent circles and enjoying a standard of living that they really could not afford. They survived at this time by borrowing money, with Vladimir searching for investment opportunities which he hoped would eventually reap such rewards that he and Sofia could concentrate fully on their academic interests. Sofia had been left a small inheritance following her father's death in 1874, and it was this money which they invested in a real estate scheme. Unfortunately academic brilliance is not necessarily correlated with financial shrewdness,38 and Vladimir already had financial worries due to his troubled publishing business. Whilst these investment ideas were undoubtedly Vladimir's, Sofia was all too willing to go along with his plans.

Sofia wished to sit for the master's degree which would allow her to teach mathematics at a high level in Russia, and as a result spent some months preparing herself for the exam. She soon discovered that this time was wasted however, as it was legally forbidden for women to attempt to attain this degree. The only postion available to her was teaching arithmetic in the lower grades of a girls' school. At this time she also assisted with the establishment of higher education courses for women in St. Petersburg along with her former tutor Strannoliubsky. Her offer to teach these courses was unsurprisingly but nevertheless disappointingly rejected once again due to her sex.

Sofia was far from idle during this period. She turned her hand to many other pursuits including the writing of fiction, theatre reviews and science reports for a newspaper. The atmosphere in Russia was not to her liking for mathematical work however. It could easily be argued that, Had she frequented the society of her intellectual peers she might have lived a normal life and kept her enthusiasm,39 but in Russia she was somewhat isolated from the mathematical community due to her association with Weierstrass and his methods. Chebyshev was, for all intents and purposes, the only Russian mathematician who was really willing at that time to discuss and exchange ideas with her.


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Leigh Ellison May 2002