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SONJA KOWALESKI’S HAT was intended to keep “her marvelous blue eyes” from distracting Karl Weierstrass, famed 19th-century mathematician, when she approached him as a prospective student. Kowaleski was “twenty, very earnest, very eager, and very determined; he was fifty-five….” 

These descriptions come from E.T. Bell’s authoritative, albeit traditionally titled Men of Mathematics. 

Men of Mathematics, by E.T. Bell, Simon and Schuster, 1937.

Sonja has already made a cameo appearance here at SimanaitisSays in 2018. The context was Alfred Nobel’s omitting a prize in mathematics. 

Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, 1850–1891, Russian mathematician, the first woman to obtain a doctorate (in the modern sense) in mathematics, the first appointed to a full professorship, one of the first to edit a scientific journal. She died of the 1891 flu epidemic.

Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are more tidbits on the talented Professor Kowaleski, gleaned from E.T. Bell’s book and my usual Internet sleuthing (one bit of which involved translation from Russian to Spanish to English).

Sonja’s Upbringing. Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya was born in Moscow to aristocratic and prosperous Russians. Her family lineage included Matthias Corvinus, 15th-century King of Hungary and Croatia.

Matthias Corvinus, 1443–1490, King of Hungary and Croatia, 1458–1490; King of Bohemia, 1469–1490; Duke of Austria, 1487–1490. Image from Wikipedia; photo by Szilas in the Hungarian National Museum.

Sonja showed early love of reading, poetry, and mathematics. There’s a lovely tale that in one family residence, the wallpaper supply was exhausted before papering her room. Instead, these walls were covered with ordinary paper, part of which consisted of notes on calculus and differential equations. According to, “At only eight years old, she began studying these notes, trying to decipher the mysterious symbols and writing.” At eight or nine, Sonja independently formulated elements of trigonometry.

According to Wikipedia, “At the age of 11, she fell in love with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, her sister’s ex-boyfriend.” 

Sonja’s Foreign Study. Bell wrote, “… she was enabled to gratify her ambition for foreign study and matriculated at the University of Heidelberg. This highly gifted girl became not only the leading woman mathematician of modern times, but also made a reputation as a leader in the movement for the emancipation of women, particularly as regarded their age-old disabilities in the field of higher education.”

Bell continued, “The status of unmarried women students in the 1870s was somewhat anomalous. To forestall gossip, Sonja at the age of eighteen contracted what was to have been a nominal marriage, left her husband in Russia and set out for Germany.”

Tomorrow in Part 2, Sonja encounters giants of 19th-century science and mathematics. 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020 

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